The Architecture, Engineering and Construction Industry Shuts Out Minority Owned Businesses; CEO Deryl McKissack has a 7-Step Plan to Combat AEC’s Systemic Racism

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The architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry employs 13 million people—9% of all working Americans—and has many well-paying jobs. Yet Blacks are underrepresented in all of its related professions. McKissack & McKissack CEO Deryl McKissack attributes AEC’s lack of diversity to systemic racism and unconscious biases. A Black female civil engineer, she hopes to bring change with a 7-Step Plan.

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“The industry expects minority and women-owned owned enterprises to be subcontractors or team members rather than project leads, and this pigeonholes us. We can break ground, but we can’t gain ground. It’s a struggle to be accepted as the lead,” says McKissack & McKissack CEO Deryl McKissack

McKissack has been fighting for diversity and inclusion in the AEC industry for almost four decades. She founded her namesake architecture, engineering and construction management business in 1990; today it is one of the nation’s oldest and largest Black- and female-owned AEC firm.

“The industry expects minority and women-owned owned enterprises (MWBEs) to be subcontractors or team members rather than project leads, and this preconception pigeonholes us. We can break ground, but we can’t gain ground. It’s a struggle to be accepted as the lead,” McKissack says. “One obvious reason is that AEC is a homogenous industry; just look at the stats. It’s hard for minorities to get in the room, meet potential clients and establish strong relationships that will lead to new business opportunities. People often hire who they know.”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that Blacks are underrepresented in AEC professions. They number 6.4% of all construction workers and 6.1% of architecture and engineering professionals, but are 12.3% of the workforce. By contrast, 88% of all construction workers and 84% of all architecture and engineering professionals are white, yet only 78% of the total workforce is white.

Why Diversity and Inclusion Are Critical to AEC’s Future
The architecture, engineering and construction industry touches every building Americans use and all the infrastructure that makes modern life possible. It shapes entire communities, building structures worth $1.3 trillion every year, and draws talent from manufacturers, knowledge workers and trade professionals. But culturally, the AEC industry is homogenous. Embracing diversity gives organizations new perspectives that lead to creative solutions. Creating diverse and inclusive companies will raise the AEC industry’s economic impact; research shows that diverse companies are more profitable.

The AEC industry must also become more inclusive to be relevant and profitable in the future. Given the tight costs and returns that apply to building projects today, and the changing nature of America’s populace—set to be a majority minority nation by 2045—AEC teams must stay attuned to the requirements and perspectives of projects’ end users to ensure usability and high occupancy rates.

A 7-Step Plan to Confront Racism in the AEC Industry
Today, racism and lack of diversity in the AEC industry translates into missed opportunities and insular solutions; represents lost earnings; prevents the formation and growth of MWBEs; and deters economic development in underserved communities. To prompt change and help MWBEs reach parity, McKissack is proposing a 7-step plan—and asking all AEC industry businesses to adopt it.

1. Acknowledge there is racism in the AEC industry. Racism is a serious problem and industry members must commit to fix it with concrete actions. This includes helping minority firms develop and grow so they can be on the same economic playing field; making majority-owned company boards more diverse; promoting more minorities to executive and senior leadership positions; changing company cultures; and measure and report progress.

2. Be an active participant in helping minorities close the wealth gap by hiring, enabling and supporting AEC minority-owned businesses. Black Americans have 1/10th the wealth of white Americans; this is driven by a lack of inherited assets, historically limited or restricted access to capital and inadequate educational and training opportunities. Hiring minority AEC firms that can grow wealth by developing strong businesses that can be passed down to generations or sold. Hiring minority firms also helps these small businesses create capital, manage cash flow and create jobs—and minority-owned firms hire and train minority employees.

3. Eliminate anti-racist policies and practices. Move the conversation from diversity to racial equity. Invite everyone to the table--and the country club. Examine not only hiring, retention, and promotion practices, but also procurement, charitable giving and community involvement. Develop fair, transparent and inclusive processes for company and team decision-making.

4. Require, demand and allow MWBEs to be direct suppliers. Change procurement policies: Currently, lead teams are often required to include minority teams—it’s time to give qualified Tier 1 businesses of proven excellence the opportunity to lead. Create a pipeline of sustainable opportunities for minority firms and commit to building them into high-growth businesses. This comprehensive approach ensures continued financial growth, employee satisfaction and employee retention.

5. Develop creative strategies and programs to hire, train, retain and promote diverse workers, from fostering internships and mentorship programs to recruiting at historically Black colleges and universities. Diversity is the solution to systemic labor shortages. Train leaders to be inclusive; diversity does not stick without inclusion. Support AEC Mentor programs and focus on projects that enable and inspire minority entry into STEM education. Work with labor unions to address the disparity in Black and Latinx apprentice participation, and inspire, train and retain minorities in trade opportunities.

6. Mandate and enforce strict goals to use minority suppliers. Redefine procurement priorities; procurement departments should be mandated to find and identify MWBE Tier 1 suppliers. They should also demand that majority firms partner with minority suppliers 100% of the time—only the procurement process has the power to make this happen. Use minority suppliers that reflect the local populace and include local trades and businesses.

7. Invite community-based minority suppliers to the table in underserved neighborhoods. Reduce community disruption by providing and sharing the economic fruits of the job. Use small businesses in local communities when involved in any community project. These services can range from transportation providers, security companies, catering, landscapers and cleaning companies. Make sure to develop an ongoing list of such companies.
“The inequities wrought by COVID-19, along with those brought to light by #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, make this the right time for CEOs to lean in and radically change the AEC industry from the inside out. Doing so will advance racial equity and justice in AEC, which is long overdue,” McKissack adds.
Some companies have already begun to implement similar initiatives, but very few with the full force of the CEO’s office and leadership team. McKissack is asking her peers to commit their firms to change using these seven steps.

ABOUT MCKISSACK & MCKISSACK: McKissack & McKissack is a national architecture, engineering, program- and construction-management firm with more than 30 years of experience working with clients to envision and deliver building and infrastructure projects that enrich people’s lives and empower communities to flourish. Based in Washington, D.C. and with offices in Austin, Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles, the firm is ranked by Engineering News-Record as one of the top 50 Top Construction Management For-Fee firms and one of the 50 Top Program Management Firms in the nation and by the Washington Business Journal as one of the top 25 design firms in the metropolitan Washington area.

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