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March 4, 2021

Owners drive increasing diversity on public projects — no more ‘give it your best shot'

  • Many AEC firms are partnering with WMBE firms in new ways.
    Johnston Training Group


    Diversity and inclusion goals for AEC firms pursuing public projects have moved from a “give it your best shot” mentality to “show us the outreach and inclusion plan — and prove you can do it.”

    These goals usually involve subcontracting to WMBE (women- and minority-owned business enterprises; the category also includes small businesses and veteran-owned businesses). For communities of color, WMBE are often economic drivers bringing jobs to the areas that need it most.


    Beyond immediate economic support, diversity and inclusion has a long-term benefit — modeling.

    “We are all about student outcomes and I recognize that not every student is on a college pathway,” said Richard Best, Seattle Public Schools director of Capital Projects & Planning. SPS does about $250 million of work per year — often for schools in underserved communities.

    “SPS is very ethnically diverse and many kids see our construction activities,” Best said. “There is strong data that says kids who see an ethnically diverse workforce can then imagine themselves potentially doing that job.”

    Nancy Locke, a consultant who works with SPS, added, “It's incredibly important that kids see folks who look like them working on our projects.”

    Other types of organizations with public projects are increasing their use of WMBE.

    “Three years ago we were at about 5% on diverse business inclusion on construction projects with less than 1% to state-certified firms,” said Aleanna Kondelis, director, Procurement & Sourcing for University of Washington Facilities. “Today, we are around 15% of our construction project dollars going to diverse businesses.”

    Steve Tatge, executive director of the UW Facilities Project Delivery Group, said that diversity and equity are just as important as budget and schedule, and that his team provides diversity performance metrics to the UW Regents regularly.

    The Port of Seattle's Director of Diversity in Contracting, Mian Rice, said the port has steadily increased the number of small businesses that participate on its projects. “In 2016 we had 118 WMBE and by 2019 we were up to 290. Last year, we reached 325,” said Rice.

    Our Johnston Training Group selection panel research reinforced this change. We surveyed over 120 panel members since 2008 on numerous proposal and interview topics. On a scale of 1 to 7, the average ranking for achieving WMBE goals has gone from 3.9 in 2008 to 6.3 today.


    WMBE firms and small businesses often run into hurdles when stepping up to be part of a team on public projects. Prompt payment and complex paperwork requirements are cited, as well as more unexpected challenges.

    “On projects at Sea-Tac, firms are often working near airplanes, which requires a higher level of insurance. That's often a surprise for small businesses — and some primes too,” commented the Port of Seattle's Rice.

    WMBE small businesses are sometimes mom-and-pop shops that are accustomed to doing business with a handshake. They may need help with public entities that require documentation from start to finish. Local organizations such as Tabor 100 provide help for WMBE firms with a project's legal and paperwork requirements.

    Another way that AEC firms can encourage WMBE involvement is to break up bid packages and design scopes into smaller amounts and provide mentoring for the work itself.

    Vicki Puckett, director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Cornerstone General Contractors, said, “Engaging WMBE firms through one-on-one mentoring helps remove barriers and establish trust-based relationships between Cornerstone and WMBEs. This results in WMBEs having full confidence to pursue opportunities and execute contracts with Cornerstone, and ultimately other GCs, knowing they have our support and can succeed.”

    Janice Zahn, director of Construction Management at the Port of Seattle, said, “Connecting WMBE firms with AEC firms seeking partners is a critical link to establishing relationships.”

    The port is planning to kick off an “accelerator” program this summer to create even more engagement with WMBE firms.


    Many AEC firms are partnering with WMBE firms in new ways — even at their own expense.

    Morris Aldridge, executive director of Planning & Development at Tacoma Public Schools, cited an architecture firm that stepped up.

    “BCRA brought in and mentored minority-owned landscape architects — even when they had landscape capabilities themselves,” Aldridge said.

    Other firms will designate part of the contract to a WMBE firm.

    “We have several projects where non-business equity firms have taken 10% of the contract value and partnered with a WMBE firm, such as a civil engineer,” said Tatge. “It's not huge dollars but they're providing opportunities for smaller and diverse firms to get some work at the university.”

    When choosing which firms will best meet the goals on a project, Aldridge said that firms need to “walk the walk, not just check the box. We want to hear what the firms have already done.”

    He recalled a recent project where eight firms submitted proposals, but he considered two “dead on arrival” because they only shared what they planned to do to meet WMBE goals — and not what they had done. In today's interviews, delivering standard talking points for reaching diversity goals has little effect.

    “I've been in education for 35 years and I know a dog-and-pony show when I see it,” said Aldridge.


    AEC firms can maximize their chances of winning public projects with WMBE partners through several strategies:

    • Build authentic relationships over the long term that make your WMBE partner an equal.

    • Learn your WMBE partner's unique knowledge early and include it in the proposal.

    • Focus on your partner's expertise, not just that they are WMBE.

    • Show during the interview how you and your WMBE partner will carry out plans together — and back it up with real stories from past projects.

    Include your WMBE partners at every step of the interview preparation process to create a seamless team when it's showtime.


    As more WMBE firms contribute to the success of public projects, the benefits go beyond a single project to the community. New jobs are created. WMBE firms thrive and grow and their team members build confidence and pride. And young people see a diverse workforce designing and building projects and are inspired to join their ranks.

    Scott Johnston is president at Johnston Training Group, which offers interview coaching, presentation skills and business development training programs for AEC firms.

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