Mentoring high school students works

Oct. 1, 2007
BY PAMELA MULLENDER Special to CONTRACTOR According to figures published by the U.S. Department of Labor, there will be as many as 1.3 million job openings in the construction industry by 2010. As intimidating as this figure is, it is still a conservative estimate. Professional organizations like the Construction Industry Roundtable or the Construction Users Roundtable anticipate an even more serious


According to figures published by the U.S. Department of Labor, there will be as many as 1.3 million job openings in the construction industry by 2010. As intimidating as this figure is, it is still a conservative estimate. Professional organizations like the Construction Industry Roundtable or the Construction Users Roundtable anticipate an even more serious labor shortage, with close to 2 million anticipated job openings by that same date.

What is driving these alarming statistics is an aging workforce — for every five engineers retiring, only one enters the workforce — as well as changes in secondary education that have severely impacted students’ abilities to receive the vocational training that would prepare them for a career in the construction trades or industry. At the same time, the increase in natural disasters as well as other unplanned events requiring major reconstruction over the past several years — examples would be hurricanes Rita and Katrina or the recent collapse of the bridge in Minneapolis — have been taking labor away from scheduled projects, delaying completion and raising costs.

Despite its significant impact on the economy and on the infrastructure of this country, the construction industry has not been able to attract a significant number of recent high school and college graduates. This is all the more surprising given that construction jobs — unlike jobs in technology or manufacturing, for example — cannot be outsourced. With 70+ occupations in the combined construction industry (i.e., architecture, construction and engineering) the industry is not only the second largest workforce in the U.S. after healthcare, it is also one of the most diverse and secure fields a career-minded young person can enter today.

Unfortunately, most high school and college students are unaware of the myriad opportunities careers in construction offer. Recognizing this dilemma, Charles Thornton, co-founder of the engineering firm Thornton-Tomasetti, joined forces with five other principals of leading design and construction firms more than a decade ago to create a mentoring program that would introduce students at the highschool level to the broad range of people and projects within the industry.

The ACE Mentor Program — the acronym stands for “Architecture- Construction-Engineering” — was launched in 1994, with 17 firms banding together into three teams. Each was organized like a typical design and construction team, comprised of architects, engineers, general contractors, subcontractors, construction managers, skilled craftsmen, ironworkers as well as mechanical engineers. Volunteers from each of the firms worked directly with about 90 students from local high schools throughout New York City.

How does ACE work?
Rather than putting on a onetime event during career-day at local schools, the ACE Mentor program is built around teams of mentors that spend a total of 30 to 45 hours with participating students over a ninemonth period. Since its inception, the program has grown from three to 600 teams nationwide, mentoring close to 30,000 students. ACE Mentor programs exist in 91 cities from Boston to San Diego, from Seattle to Miami, from Chicago to Dallas. Approximately 82% of participants are minorities, almost evenly divided among both genders.

In addition to attending presentations and field trips, students are asked to design and build a model of a project of their choice with each team member taking on the responsibilities of the respective professional in the field they have volunteered to represent. In selecting their project, students typically come up with their own ideas. But they also receive a lot of guidance from their mentors. In the immediate aftermath of hurricane Katrina, for example, five Baltimore based mentors asked their teams to design a portable classroom that could be transported to New Orleans so their peers in Louisiana would be able to continue their education during the reconstruction phase.

In Atlanta, an all-women team decided to design and “build” a shopping mall. After their mentors had taken them on a tour around town, the team chose a piece of property on which their virtual development — a strip mall with shops, food courts and ample parking — could be built. A team in Easton, Md., designed a theme park similar to DisneyWorld, complete with Eiffel Tower, to be situated on the Eastern shore.

Inspired by one of their speakers who served on the committee to bring the 2013 Olympics to Washington, another team decided to build the stadium that would host the parade of countries between the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument. During their final presentation, students lit a model-size torch they had built with the help of the mechanical contractor on their mentoring team.

About 92% of s tudent s going through the ACE Mentoring Program enter a college program or apprenticeship after graduation. After completing the yearlong program, they are eligible for one of the many local scholarships and more than 25 national ACE scholarships. The ACE scholarship fund was established in 1995, after the organization held its first fundraiser. Typically, awards will go to students pursuing a degree in the design and construction industries. But program participants interested in going into a trade skill are also eligible for support in the form of equipment, like tools or hard-toed shoes, they need to pursue their training.

Since 2005, one of our major corporate sponsors, EMCOR Group, has nominated six EMCOR scholars. Three of these students are studying electrical engineering and three others are in mechanical engineering programs at universities such as Drexel, University of Philadelphia, University of Alabama – Huntsville and Oregon State University.

How to get involved
The ACE Mentor Program is an industry- driven undertaking. In other words, participants from within the industry are not actively recruited, they must step forward and get involved. However, once an industry member has expressed interest in the program, corporate sponsors — among them Turner Construction, EMCOR, the National Association of Women in Construction, and the AIA, to name but a few — are brought in to help implement a viable program.

Typically, the regional offices of national sponsors are asked to pull together everyone who might consider joining to get a program started in a particular area. Contributions from corporate sponsors have included scholarship funds, help with the creation of marketing materials, but most importantly, they have given us the time and expertise of their employees.

A firm can expect to spend 15 sessions of two hours each with the students. ACE has compiled a book of Best Practices for mentors to use that is divided into the many different industries represented by a team. ACE tries to make it easy for any firm to get involved. If two or three employees from a company participate, they can cover when one member is taken away by his job commitment.

The ACE Mentor Program is now well established. It provides a mechanism for companies to address the issue of labor shortages by getting students excited about career opportunities in the industry. If you are interested in starting an ACE Mentoring Program in your city or region, please contact us at [email protected] or 203/323;8550 or visit

Pamela Mullender is executive director of the ACE Mentor Program of America, a position she has held for two years, after consulting to the organization for an additional three. Her experience in education, marketing, government relations and fundraising will support the growth efforts of ACE into the foreseeable future.

Poole & Kent Corp., an EMCOR company, is a full-service mechanical contractor based in Baltimore. The firm provides turnkey mechanical solutions — including plumbing systems, HVAC, medical gas systems and digital controls — to corporate and institutional clients.

Poole & Kent’s involvement with ACE dates back to the summer of 2005 when the firm first hosted EMCOR ACE Scholarship recipient Ricardo Anderson — now a senior in mechanical engineering at Drexel University.

“What immediately intrigued me about ACE,” says Adam E. Snavely, president and CEO of Poole & Kent, “was the fact that the program targets students who are not yet in college. You are giving these kids access to information they ordinarily wouldn’t be exposed to until late in college or even after they graduate.”

In 2006, Poole & Kent approached Mount St. Joseph High School with the idea of fielding a new Baltimore ACE team. With the assistance of the local chapter, they assembled a team of mentors from a wide range of firms to introduce participating students to the career opportunities available in the construction industry. Starting in the spring of 2008, the firm will also collaborate with New Town High School, a recently founded Baltimore County school that offers a construction management and school-to-career program.

As one of the more than 25 firms actively supporting mentors in the Baltimore ACE chapter, Poole & Kent has been going all out to offer engaging activities that pique students’ curiosity and hold their interest. In addition to 10+ classroom meetings with industry professionals, program participants have been able to explore the “inner workings” of prominent local buildings during the field trips that are part of the ACE curriculum.

A favorite destination of the students is the M&T Bank Stadium, home of the Baltimore Ravens, and one of the many area projects with which Poole & Kent was involved. In lieu of tour staples like the press box or locker rooms, students had the opportunity to visit mechanical and electrical rooms, learn about sound, lighting, and security systems, as well as touring many other “back-of-house” areas rarely seen by the public.

Another field trip involved a construction site tour of a mixed-use high-rise facility in downtown Baltimore adjacent to the site designated for the 2007 ACE Baltimore team project, entitled “The conceptual design and construction of the tallest building in Baltimore City.” In the Baltimore chapter, eight teams individually worked on their concept for the tallest building in Baltimore for 10 weeks and then presented their final design to each other in front of several hundred family members, friends and peers at the chapter’s annual presentation night in a local college auditorium. Building a core group of mentors who truly enjoy working with students is a key prerequisite for a successful program. That’s why Snavely prefers to get personally involved in recruiting ACE mentors and guest speakers.

“It’s important to find people who enjoy talking about their work, who are excited about the industry and their careers, because the kids pick up on this excitement,” he explains. “In many cases the ACE mentors are providing their first exposure to our industry, and a positive experience greatly increases the chances that they will pursue a career in construction, architecture or engineering.”

According to Snavely, since the mentors have to attend frequent and oft-times weekly meetings with other mentors or the students over a six-month period, it is critical for the success of the program that mentors receive full support from the highest level within the firm.

“This industry tends to force very busy schedules and a mentor’s obligation to their ACE commitment often has to take precedence over other job-related activities,” he notes.

“In some cases, this may mean a firm committing already scarce human resources to a cause that does not promise the instant return on a professional level as, say, a meeting with a client,” Snavely adds. “But the return on a personal level is immediate and, participation in ACE is not only a wise, but a necessary investment in the future of the industry.”

Connecting with students at the high school rather than college level allows industry professionals to create awareness of career opportunities in the field early on, and channel general student interests in the direction of the construction industry, Snavely believes. He recalled one prospective ACE participant who expressed a strong interest in social services, but couldn’t visualize how this orientation could dovetail with a career in construction. After meeting with several developers as part of the ACE mentoring program, the student decided to pursue a career in development — with a focus on low-income housing. In several other cases, students with a strong interest in technology were steered in the direction of building controls and building information modeling.

“I witnessed our team’s mentors get tremendous satisfaction from the fact that this program helps students find ways of identifying and connecting their interests with an actual career path,” Snavely says.

Another practical aspect of forming relationships with students at high school rather than college level is geography. Students are historically likely to return to their hometown during the summer and after they graduate. This makes them ideal candidates for summer internships and, ultimately, future employees. Thanks to its participation in the ACE Mentoring Program, Poole & Kent has been able to attract several summer interns to work for them, and hopes are high that they will eventually become full-time members of their firm.

The benefits of ACE are by no means limited to ameliorating the imminent employee crisis faced by the construction industry. ACE-related teamwork also provides an effective opportunity to strengthen already existing industry and client relationships as well as develop new ones, all the while generating positive PR for the firm.

“The large time investment due to a firm’s participation in ACE is not all altruistic,” concedes Snavely. “In addition to all of the personal rewards it’s a great program in terms of community support and corporate responsibility as well as providing excellent networking opportunities with industry peers.”

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