Attracting young people to the world of construction has never been an easy task. When mulling over careerchoices, most high school students think that the work is dirty and hard, the pay is low, and that the industry can be dangerous, unethical and discriminatory to women.
As the baby boomers start to retire in the next several years, especially now that the Great Recession has ended, the war for talent is back in the spotlight. The National Center for Construction Education and Research projects a net shortage of skilled workers totaling 700,000 in 2014, even assuming a return of 80% of the 2,000,000 workers lost in the downturn. Now more than ever, the industry must demonstrate to secondary school age students just how exciting and rewarding careers can be in architecture, construction management and engineering. And for almost two decades, the ACE Mentor Program of America has been doing just that.
The principals of leading design and construction firms founded the ACE Mentor Program in 1994 as an innovative way to introduce high school students to career opportunities in the industry. Charles H. Thornton, founding principal of Thornton-Tomasetti Group, an international design firm, is considered the driving force behind ACE. After several years of experimenting with several mentoring models, the independent nonprofit ACE Mentor Program was created when 17 firms banded together into three teams. Approximately 90 students from local high schools were “adopted,” and volunteers from each of the firms served as mentors and worked directly with the students to introduce them to the broad range of people and projects within the construction industry. Students learned about the industry firsthand by selecting and designing a project, touring project offices and visiting active construction jobsites.
HOW ACE WORKS
ACE consists of affiliates that serve students within a certain city. Each affiliate has a board of directors, executive director and a number of professionals from local design, construction and engineering firms. Project teams are formed within the affiliate and usually include an owner firm, a design firm, an engineering firm and a construction manager or general contractor as well as participants from a local college or university with programs in architecture, engineering or construction management. Each team mentors approximately 20 to 30 students for part of the school year.
Special efforts are made to recruit women and minorities, who may not be aware of the opportunities and rewards of a career in the design and construction industries. The goal is to introduce students to career possibilities as well as to teach business skills such as effective communication, presentation skills, meeting deadlines, working as team members, etc.
Students learn about the various design professions and the role of each in planning, designing and constructing a project. The teams meet at least 15 times during the school year. Each team selects a project and goes through the entire design process, with help from the mentoring firms. The school year ends with a formal event where the teams present their projects.
THE NUMBERS DON’T LIE
A 2010 research study1 of ACE students who completed the program between 2002 and 2009 produced some statistics that show the success of the program:
- ACE participants who were high school seniors in 2009 graduated at a rate of 97% compared to the 73% national high school graduation rate.
- ACE students who were seniors in 2009 enrolled in college at a rate of 94%compared to the national college enrollment rate of 68% for that same year.
- Female ACE participants (29%) entered engineering programs at colleges and universities at almost double the rate of their non-ACE counterparts (15%).
- The percentage of Hispanic ACE participants entering engineering programs is almost four times the rate of their non-ACE counterparts.
- The percentage of African-American ACE alumni entering engineering programs is almost three times the rate of their non-ACE counterparts.
- More than 65% of ACE alumni are pursuing architecture, construction or engineering majors as graduate or undergraduate students.
These are just a handful of the facts that show ACE is accomplishing its mission. To access the entire research study, please visit ACE’s website at http://www.acementor.org/524.
KEYS TO ACE’S SUCCESS
ACE relies on mentors who are successful professionals from leading design and construction firms. Mentors devote countless hours and energy, and help the students determine what careers are available and right for them. ACE recognizes that “there is no substitute for experience — the ACE Mentor Program is driven by the committed and enthusiastic participation of volunteer mentors who are practicing professionals in their respective fields. ACE offers high school students the best opportunities because ACE offers the best industry mentors.”2
Thornton acknowledges that many of the students who have been through ACE eventually become mentors. “They’re coming back in droves. Some of them take a year or two when they graduate to get their positions with their firms established.”
Another key to ACE’s success is the numerous sponsors who provide financial support and volunteer labor. It is because of them that ACE is able to provide its programs to the students at no cost.
John Strock, executive director of ACE, notes that while the financial commitment is necessary to run ACE, “Sponsors also provide mentors, which is just as important as money. Anywhere our national sponsors have offices, they are also providing mentors and board members and local support as well. We estimate that every year our sponsors provide more than $10,000,000 in in-kind volunteer labor, nationwide.”
To attract sponsors, “Our national office identifies companies that we think could benefit from being involved in ACE and of course where ACE could benefit from their involvement as well. It’s really grass-roots, industry reach-out,” according to Strock. “ACE is the only industry-created, industry-driven and industry-supported career immersion program for the construction and design industries.
ACE is a workforce development pipeline to all of these industries, and we are addressing the impending shortage of construction and design professionals.”
What are the benefits to becoming an ACE sponsor?
- Sponsors establish their companies as industry leaders that care about the success of the profession by committing to its future.
- Sponsorships present opportunities to network and collaborate with other industry leaders and to share views about what is best for each respective industry.
- Sponsors help shape the future of construction, especially those who work directly as mentors since they get to see the skills, knowledge and work ethic the ACE participants will bring to the industry.
ACE’s National Board of Directors
The ACE National Board of Directors is comprised of board officers, executive committee, board members and a leadership council. Its members are the leaders and executives of top-rated industry firms. Hank Harris, president and CEO of FMI Corporation, is an ACE executive committee member. He says the executive committee meets monthly either by phone or in person and discusses high-level policies, financials, strategic plans, generation of new affiliates and revenues, and staff needs. Since ACE’s National Board consists of so many members, the executive committee’s work is an integral driver of ACE’s overall strategy and policies.
Executive Director John Strock agrees. “I’ve worked in nonprofits my whole career and I’ve never seen an executive committee and board as engaged as ACE is now. They are steering the organization, they are putting their money where their mouths are, and are leading by example. They are not just sitting at the table, but are getting involved and really care about what is happening.”
The ACE Mentor Program has a presence in more than 200 American cities and is still growing. Thanks to the dedication of ACE’s mentors and staff, and the support of local schools, more than 60,000 students have had the opportunity to explore the building, design and construction industry and consider it as a career choice.
If your company would like to get involved with ACE, please contact its national office at 703.942.8101.
In 2011 the ACE Mentor Program announced that it was one of eight recipients of the prestigious 2010 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring (PAESMEN). In learning of the award, Charles Thornton commented, “I’m incredibly proud for ACE to be recognized with this prestigious honor. I take enormous pride in being part of an organization that helps to find and inspire young men and women who likely would not have chosen these careers, if not for our outreach and mentoring. This award is a wonderful recognition of ACE’s success. But most important are the men and women who have taken our help and gone on to spectacular careers in architecture, construction and engineering are our true validation.”
Thornton also praised the mentors by saying, “All ACE mentors share in this moment, as they are the lifeblood of our organization. It is because of their dedication, time and effort that we are able to reach and inspire wonderful young men and women.”
Thornton accepted the award in a White House ceremony, and the ACE program received an award of $25,000 from the National Science Foundation to advance mentoring efforts.
Kelley Chisholm is editor of FMI Quarterly. She can be reached at 919.785.9215 or via email at email@example.com.