Achieving diversity, equity and inclusion and eliminating racism in the architecture, engineering and construction is critical for the future; here’s a 7-Point Plan to reach this goal.

Why We Need A 7-Point Plan to Combat Racism and Discrimination in the AEC Industry

Achieving diversity, equity and inclusion and eliminating racism in the architecture, engineering and construction is critical for the future; here’s a 7-Point Plan to reach this goal.
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Last year, even at the height of a pandemic, the architecture, engineering and construction industry employed 12.5 million people—almost 9% of all working Americans. While other industries crumbled, our industry—considered essential—forged on and saw meaningful gains. Many people were still paid and able to support themselves and their families at a time when the unemployment rate reached 14.8%—the highest ever recorded since data collection began in 1948.

Yet Black workers did not enjoy this good fortune. They make up only 6% of the architecture, engineering and construction sectors, even though they represent 12% of the U.S. workforce.  By contrast, Hispanic workers make up 30% of construction workers but represent 18% of the U.S. workforce. Overall, Black Americans lucky enough to have jobs last year earned 20% less than their white peers—even those with advanced degrees similar to white workers.

But workforce underrepresentation is only one issue Blacks face in the AEC industry. As Black Lives Matter gained momentum last year and the racism and discrimination Blacks face in all walks of life attracted media attention, a reprehensible trend in AEC finally got the publicity it needs to be rectified: the proliferation of nooses on jobsites. Since 2015, over 55 nooses have been reported on construction sites with Black workers, causing work stoppages on projects employing hundreds of workers. The companies impacted by these incidents—including Amazon, Facebook and Apple—have all stated that racist behavior is entirely unacceptable on any work site. Yet the culprits involved have rarely been caught or faced any consequences for their actions.

(Image: HASpod)

Diversity and Inclusion Are Critical to AEC’s Future

The unjustifiable employment numbers, coupled with the events of the past year, are telling us something important: Racism has been an ongoing nightmare in AEC for decades. I learned over 35 years ago on the first day of my first job as a civil engineer when I saw a Confederate flag hanging on the wall behind my boss’s desk.

But most significantly for every company in the AEC industry, ignoring racism and discrimination is just too costly. For example, many tasks in construction are a team effort—and on jobsites, those tasks can be dangerous. Hostile work environments are not only a legal liability but can also be dangerous and impact profitability. Eliminating tensions makes teamwork go faster and jobsites safer. Both these benefits increase productivity and profitability.

AEC’s homogeneity is another issue that costs our industry dearly, especially as America speeds towards becoming multiracial. AEC touches every building we use and all the infrastructure that makes modern life possible. It shapes entire communities. Embracing diversity gives organizations new perspectives that lead to better, and likely more creative, solutions and results in the projects we design and build.

All this makes another point clear: we can’t continue to overlook or exclude so much talent. Labor shortages are an ongoing concern in AEC. Yet women and minorities remain grossly underrepresented in all sectors of our industry. With safety, diversity and labor shortages at stake, creating diverse and inclusive companies will raise the AEC industry’s economic impact; research shows that diverse companies are more profitable.

The bottom line is clear: We need to replace systemic bias and exclusion with a culture of respect and inclusion. That’s why I’ve developed a 7-Point Plan, which has been designed to make real progress on diversity, equity and inclusion for all AEC enterprises and all minority workers—not just Blacks. It’s time for all of us to rise to this challenge and change the equation in AEC.

(Image: Shutterstock)

A 7-Point Plan to Confront Racism in the AEC Industry  

Racism, discrimination and the lack of diversity in the AEC industry translates into missed opportunities and insular solutions; represents lost earnings; prevents the creation and growth of MWBEs; and deters economic development in underserved communities. To spur change and reach parity, we must:  

  1. Acknowledge the existence of racism and discrimination in the AEC industry. This is a serious problem; the structure of, and systems in, the AEC industry have been so ingrained for so many generations that its professionals don’t realize the depth and breadth of this problem. In fact, for most of those in the AEC industry, these are unconscious biases and much deeper than we realize. They will take concrete actions to fix. It will require helping minority firms develop and grow so they can be on the same economic playing field; making majority-owned company boards more diverse; promoting more minorities to executive and senior leadership positions; changing company cultures; and measuring and reporting progress.
  2. Actively help minorities close the wealth gap by hiring, enabling and supporting them and MWBEs. Black Americans’ wealth is dwarfed by that of white Americans; they have one cent for every dollar white families have. Latino families fare slightly better with eight cents for every dollar. This is driven by a lack of inherited assets, fair opportunities, historically limited or restricted access to capital and inadequate educational and training opportunities. Hiring MWBE AEC firms provides sustainable opportunities for these firms to earn income, provide jobs for women and minorities and develop generational wealth. It can also help these small-to-midsize businesses manage cash flow and create jobs because minority-owned firms hire and train minority employees.
  3. Eliminate anti-racist policies and practices. Invite everyone to the table—and the country club. Examine not only hiring, retention and promotion practices, but also procurement, charitable giving and community involvement. Develop fair, transparent and inclusive processes for company and team decision-making.
  4. Allow and require MWBEs to be direct suppliers. Change procurement policies. Currently, lead teams are often required to include minority teams—it’s time to give qualified Tier 1 businesses of proven excellence the opportunity to lead. Create a pipeline of sustainable opportunities for minority firms and commit to building them into high-growth businesses. This comprehensive approach ensures continued financial growth and employee satisfaction and retention.
  5. Develop creative strategies and programs to hire, train, retain and promote diverse workers—especially to boards. Diversity is the solution to systemic labor shortages. Train leaders to be inclusive; diversity does not stick without inclusion. Support AEC Mentor programs and focus on projects that enable and inspire minority entry into STEM education. Work with labor unions to address the disparity in Black and Latinx apprentice participation, and inspire, train and retain minorities in trade opportunities. Foster internships and mentorship programs at all AEC companies and recruit at historically Black colleges and universities. Promote diverse talent, especially to corporate boards. So many well-educated minority professionals don’t’ get a fair shake and never get the promotions they deserve.
  6. Mandate and enforce strict goals to use minority suppliers. Procurement departments should be mandated to find and identify MWBE Tier 1 suppliers. They should also demand that majority firms partner with minority suppliers 100% of the time. Only the procurement process has the power to make this happen. Use minority suppliers that reflect the local populace and include local trades and businesses.
  7. Invite community-based minority suppliers to the table in underserved neighborhoods.  Reduce community disruption by providing and sharing the economic fruits of the job. Use small local businesses when involved in any community project. These services can range from transportation providers, security companies, catering, landscapers and cleaning companies. Make sure to develop an ongoing list of such companies.

The inequities wrought by COVID-19, along with those brought to light by #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, make this the right time for all of us to lean in and radically change the AEC industry from the inside out. Doing so will advance racial equity and justice in AEC, which is long overdue. Please join me and McKissack & McKissack in committing to change; these seven steps are a start and we have far to go.

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