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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Top 500 Design Firms Say DEI Is Key to Improved Operations, Business Development

As more experienced design professionals reach retirement age, training the next generation of designers is an opportunity to recruit from diverse work backgrounds, such as the skilled trades, says some Top 500 Design Firm executives.

Photo courtesy of AI Engineers

Amid ongoing industry-wide skilled labor shortages, comments from ENR’s Top 500 Design Firm ↗ executives reveal that investments in diversity, equity and inclusion programs have helped firms better retain workers, work smarter with trade partners and reshape business operations to help clients focus on higher impact and more sustainable project goals. 

As more experienced design professionals reach retirement age and leave the AEC industry, training the next generation of designers is an opportunity to create a more flexible workforce with diverse skills, says Steven R. Olson president of CESO, ranked No. 250 on this year’s Top 500 list.

“A flexible workforce that seeks continuous opportunities for training and development so they can advance,” he says. “In addition to on-the-job training, we provide internal training that includes technology, business skills, financial hygiene soft skills, management, and leadership.”

Bartlett & West Inc. CEO Joe Caldwell says the firm has had a “scarcity in the availability of mid-career professionals” who can lead projects and teams. To address this challenge, he says the firm, which is ranked No. 258, is working to upskill its existing staff with leadership and project management coursework. 

“Much of which we offer through in-house training classes and programs,” Caldwell adds.  

For many Top 500 firms, the tenets of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) dovetail with strategies to improve talent recruitment and add in-demand skills such as data management and analysis to firm services.

At GZA, President and CEO Patrick Sheehan says the major pillars of its DEI program are “dialogue, training and support.” 

“We have expanded our recruiting approaches to access more diverse candidates and have focused on maintaining an inclusive work environment,” he says, adding that the firm’s five employee resource groups provide regular feedback to senior management and have helped improve its work environment. 

“Ultimately, the success of our DEI program is determined by the increased diversity of our staff, and the inclusiveness of our company culture,” Sheehan explains.

AI Engineers President and CEO Abul Islam says developing the firm’s DEI program has been key to business growth and success. 

“We had adopted the tenets of DEI much before this acronym became an industry standard,” he says. “Our firm’s culture is focused on agility, and a key attribute is to bring diverse, cross-discipline groups together to share ideas and collaborate.” 

When employees feel they are represented and supported, the quality of strategic partnerships and teaming improves, adds Islam. 

“Our project teams often exceed the minimum percentage requirements because of our commitment to connecting with and empowering other diverse businesses,” Islam contends. “Our emphasis is always on improving targeted outreach efforts to businesses with diverse owners, assuring their access to opportunities, and ensuring their participation.”

As a veteran-owned business certified by the National Veterans Business Development Council, No. 213-ranked Orbital Engineers is “very aware of the conversations surrounding the importance of DEI” and the value it brings to the company, says President and Chief Legal Counsel Dylan Lewis.

“In some instances, [it’s] the shareholders of organizations who have demanded that DEI concepts are considered in business decision-making,” he says, adding that there can sometimes be a disconnect between upper management and those getting the work done on the ground. 

“Once you drive down into the operational levels, the messaging can get lost in the desire to focus on getting the job at hand done as quickly and efficiently as possible,” says Lewis. “That’s certainly not to say that individuals are nonreceptive to having conversations surrounding DEI, but I would suggest that potentially goals of those operational individuals don’t always align with DEI considerations.”

Ranked No. 290, BWBR‘s greatest opportunity for workforce development and DEI is to prepare all of its employees to work on its diverse project portfolio and learn the technical skills required, says President and CEO Terri Ulrick. 

“It takes time and training to prepare early-career staff to step into complex roles as lab planners, medical planners, project managers or construction administration, but BWBR believes finding, keeping and growing our people is the most important investment we can make,” says Ulrick. “We do this through a comprehensive intranet and robust internal training programs geared both towards design staff and the firm as a whole. These are supplemented by active communities of practice, hands-on training cohorts geared towards particular market specialties and mentoring and soft skills development to help put all the pieces together and empower the next generation of leaders.”

Arup has been expanding recruiting efforts across all levels with a focus on underrepresented groups, maintaining an inclusive workplace and baking equity into its projects and partnerships. 

“We take a holistic approach to inclusion at Arup by including conversations about cognitive diversity, ability, language and cultural differences, in addition to identities of gender, race and ethnicity and sexual orientation,” says Eric Euting, director of Americas equity, diversity and inclusion. Ranked No. 36, the firm has produced a report every year since 2012 to measure its progress. 

Wendel, ranked No. 470, hired a DEI consultant with full support of the firm’s board of directors and principals, engaging firm staff members with surveys and employee groups. 

“We measure the success of our DEI program through the results of our staff survey that we conduct every two years,” says CEO and President Joseph DeFazio. Monthly company-wide town hall meetings further enabled the firm to immediately gauge employee morale and identify challenges, he says.

CO Architects, ranked at No. 299, has a DEI program that addresses professional growth and opportunities, recruitment and K-12 pipeline mentorship, says Managing Partner Jenna Knudsen. In 2010, the Los Angeles-based firm started Women of CO to support and empower female staff. Expanding on that idea in 2014, the firm’s summer Architecture Discovery Program provided high school girls with exposure to architecture. The program has since expanded again to focus on providing STEAM learning opportunities for all underserved students.

CO Architects also sponsors various university level scholarships and programs to create more opportunities for students interested in design.

Internally, “We launched a formal justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) initiative in 2020 to provide a forum that ensures all voices feel equally involved and supported at CO Architects,” says Knudsen. “In the highly collaborative architecture profession, a diverse and inclusive environment is vital to creating a sense of belonging and promoting connections among co-workers and on projects.”

Emell Derra Adolphus has more than a decade of writing and journalism experience. He is senior editor of ENR’s Top Lists and Survey Rankings at ENR magazine and frequently contributes stories on technology, climate resiliency, diversity, equity and inclusion.

Kaylie Pferten
Kaylie Pferten
A pilot of submersible crafts in a former life, now married to my husband David and writing about investment advice.

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