Recruitment & Retention: Challenges and Opportunities in the AEC Industry Jarvis Alridge

Recruitment & Retention: Challenges and Opportunities in the AEC Industry

With construction starts soon to eclipse pre-pandemic levels and with the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) in the U.S., Federal, State, and Local agencies as well as private and institutional developers and owners require an ever-greater pool of program, project, and construction management (PM/CM) talent to support safe, on time, and within budget delivery. Unfortunately, just as the construction industry needs more new and eager young professionals to take on management roles, there is a yawning gap of available PM/CM talent.

As just one example, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), publicly stated their need for additional PM/CM expertise given that the scope of USACE’s program has grown from approximately $25 billion to more than $80 billion compared to pre-pandemic levels. Other agencies and owners, from airports to universities, are facing similar risks and challenges to their capital programs and projects, with the only real difference being scale. The fact is there are simply not enough qualified PM/CM resources available to support the work coming down the road, and this scenario is likely to remain for many years.

To help address this shortage, the Construction Management Association of America (CMAA), assembled 14 PM/CM leaders from across the industry to discuss workforce recruitment and retention and to suggest ways to overcome the current talent shortage in both the short- and long-term. I was happy to participate in this group, as I’ve seen first-hand on my assignments managing high-profile public building and infrastructure projects how PM/CM expertise can help both drive success and help to identify and overcome risks before they can impact progress. Ensuring the industry has a pipeline of young, diverse, and reliable professionals is a priority for my company and should be for everyone in the AEC field.

However, our group saw that in many cases there was resistance to change tried-and-true, historic industry recruiting practices. Specifically, over the course of our discussions, we identified the following obstacles to drawing young talent towards best AEC talent to the PM/CM career track:

  • Too often, potential recruits equate anything to do with construction as swinging a hammer, hardhats and PPE, and loud, dirty machinery.
  • A tendency to recruit from the same schools and departments year after year and then only considering a limited number of degrees and educational backgrounds.
  • A not-altogether-untrue perception that the construction industry is averse to entrepreneurship and adopting new technologies, preferring instead to rely on “the way it’s always been done.”

While those of us who work in the PM/CM field understand that the industry is testing new methods and tools all the time and that, often, PM/CM services are provided in a contemporary office setting (or, increasingly, from home/remotely), there is some truth and history to these barriers.

Worse, once aboard, new talent then discovers their working environments are not necessarily as inclusive and welcoming as they had hoped. Post-hire issues CMAA’s group identified included:

  • A sense that new employees should be willing to “pay their dues” before presenting their own ideas and offering input.
  • An exclusive focus on production over integrating more mentorship and training, which results in burnout and a lack of a clear career advancement path.
  • A lack of stability as new professionals can feel they are assigned and re-assigned exclusively based on the immediate needs of the company rather than their own goals and aspirations.

With these obstacles and challenges in hand, our group had our work cut out for us. The results of our efforts are available in CMAA’s 2022 Prologue Report, and I encourage anyone with a stake in the PM/CM industry to review our suggestions in detail. However, I’ll attempt to offer a snapshot of our ideas below:

  • Market PM/CM services more effectively. The public in general tends to have very narrow view of construction or simply does not understand the modern construction industry. This offers us an opportunity to display how construction is in fact an industry that makes a difference in every aspect of people’s lives. Home ownership, public transit, and education projects at all levels all involve massive construction efforts. We need to show recruits that the industry offers them a meaningful career through our own stories and our pride in our expertise and accomplishments.
  • Consider new areas for recruiting. Companies seeking new talent should broaden their nets by looking at more schools, majors, and backgrounds. This may include targeted recruiting at Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other Minority-Serving Institutions; reaching out to new graduates with degrees in communications, management, research, and technology fields; being open to recruiting talent already established in industries with parallels to PM/CM services; and engaging emerging leaders from the trades who demonstrate PM/CM skills and/or desire to pursue a PM/CM career.
  • Create an inclusive culture. Once talent has joined the organization, it is the organization’s responsibility to nurture and train that talent. Ignoring work-life balance and demanding new colleagues tolerate a seen-but-not-heard mindset will not develop the workforce the industry needs. PM/CM organizations need to be involved in their communities, support meaningful national and global causes, and explain to new employees how their own interests and goals are encouraged and supported. Similarly, salary transparency across ethnic, racial, and gender barriers is key to ensuring your organization is truly inclusive.

Our panel agreed that structural issues in the industry will continue to challenge efforts to improve recruitment and retention. Narrow, poorly defined career paths and the common short-term focus on productivity, for example, are often baked into our industry and remain obstacles to recruiting the best available young talent. However, AEC firms that are willing to explore new avenues to recruitment and advancement and be flexible in accommodating the hopes and expectations of their new employees will enjoy long term success.

About the Author

Hill International, Inc. Project Controls Manager – East Coast Jarvis A. Alridge, CCM, CM-BIM, has nearly 15 years of experience managing multi-million-dollar construction and engineering projects in Washington, DC, Maryland, Virginia, Louisiana, and Arizona. His responsibilities include team building, team supervision, project controls, quality assurance, quality control, and other owner’s representative services. A leader in Hill’s PM/CM technology implementations, Jarvis is adept in AutoCad, Civil 3D, Revit, Autodesk Build, and e-Builder, as well as knowledgeable of Primavera, RS Means, Navisworks, Procore, and Kahua.

Read the entire CMAA 2022 Prologue Report on Workforce Recruitment and Retention here.