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October 16, 2023
Design and construction firms, no doubt well-intentioned with strategic diversity and representation goals, are limited by the pool of applicants. It is not possible to hire more employees with diverse backgrounds if there are too few to hire. The path to a fully representative workforce started five, 10, even 15 years ago, and similarly, representation among tomorrow’s workforce starts today.
Enter the ACE Mentor Program of Washington, one of 75-plus nationwide ACE affiliates, which has been building the local workforce for more than 20 years. ACE primarily serves Puget Sound high school students interested in architecture, construction, and engineering career exploration. By our estimates, 4,500-plus students have been exposed to AEC careers through the program, with several hundred earning scholarships to study at universities around the world and several dozen returning to work for the firms that mentored them. ACE works!
While ACE casts a wide net for recruitment and all high school students may join the free program (350 students from 74 area high schools, so far this year), recently there has been greater effort to reach students with backgrounds underrepresented in the industry. In many ways, ACE has seen great success; in other ways, there is still much to do.
WOMEN IN STEM
ACE recognizes young women are often overlooked for STEM career pathways. Nationally, young women in ACE have been steadily increasing and are now just above 40%; locally, young women comprise 46% of current applicants. In the last three years, 47 local students were awarded $385,000 in ACE scholarships; of those, an impressive 53% were young women.
While there is hope for the reach of ACE with these statistics, a closer look offers a different, sobering view: a meager 24% of female scholarship recipients plan to pursue engineering.
In 2022, ACE was honored to receive a sizable gift from Magnusson Klemencic Associates in honor of principal and owner Shelley Clark upon her retirement, and Shelley matched the donation. With these funds, ACE seeded the first endowment of any ACE program in the nation and dedicated it to the advancement of women in engineering.
Rebecca Welch, project manager at Affiliated Engineers Inc., leads the committee to manage this effort.
“Growing up, I never met any women engineers and didn’t know it was a career option,” Rebecca said. “I was lucky that my father gave me the idea to go to engineering school because I was good at math and science. I am passionate about introducing young women to the field of engineering, and this endowment is a way we can do that.”
Just five years ago, the only options related to gender on the ACE application were “male” and “female.” The addition of “prefer to self describe as” seemed like a small step but opened up the opportunity for ACE to better understand the students. While the exact number of gender-diverse students isn’t known, ACE presented its first scholarship to a non-binary student in 2020 and sent a non-binary student to a national ACE summer camp in 2023. Last year, 2% of students completing ACE identified as non-binary, while a 2021 National Institute of Health study reported the percentage among teens could be as high as 10%.
K Kaczmarek, associate interior designer at Mithun, is the only open trans architect at their firm and one of just a few gender-diverse mentors with ACE. K recalls attending an ACE event where a father noticed “they/them” pronouns on K’s name badge and introduced his child. The student connected with K, joined the Mithun team, and was able to visualize a career as an architect during ACE. This unique mentoring relationship was possible in part because representation matters.
“Visibility and representation would have made a huge difference in my career path growing up,” K said. “When I meet students who share a similar identity as myself, it fills me with so much joy, especially in a time when trans youth are in such a precarious situation in their lives. It is important to show young people that one, adult trans people exist and are thriving, and two, they can love what they do. ACE has been one of my favorite parts of being in this industry.”
In 2020, ACE formally launched a multi-pronged initiative to recruit and retain students from diverse backgrounds or areas historically underrepresented in ACE and the industry. There has been success! Last year, retention among four of the largest targeted Seattle schools was 71%, even better than the entire program retention. Of the 2023 scholarship winners, 50% were Black, Asian, or Latino.
One particularly successful outreach effort is ACE’s student advocacy program. Many students such as diverse students, young women, or neurodivergent learners are given or request an “ACE Advocate,” a volunteer outside of the student’s mentor team who acts as a cheerleader or ACE coach, helping students to feel welcome, know where and when meetings are, and have a reliable place to get advice. Last year, 51% of students with Advocates completed ACE, a 6% increase over the prior year.
Cheryl Jacobs, associate principal at NAC Architecture, has served as an Advocate since 2020.
“Volunteering as an Advocate is like no other role I have had before,” she said. “An Advocate is invited to get to know high school youth like a counselor, mentor, or friend. Each student I engage with is different, has different things they want to talk about or ask. Some need help solely with logistics and reminders, some ask big picture questions about careers. It has been a great experience to serve as a scaffold to youth who are exploring their identities and interests.”
Nationwide, the ACE program celebrates an ACE Day of Action, which this year is Oct. 20. We challenge all Puget Sound AEC professionals to show support and participate in the Day of Action in any number of creative ways. Sign up as a mentor or Advocate, join a committee, make a donation, bring an idea to life, or commit to change the path for a student. ACE is making a difference in our industry but there is more work to do, and we could use you.
Angela Gottula is executive director of the ACE Mentor Program of Washington.