Raise your hand if you picked your career path as a senior in high school. Now raise your hand if you really understood your field and the roles available. I bet a lot fewer hands went up the second time!
What if you had a chance to learn about the various professionals available within the architecture, engineering, and construction industry [A/E/C] straight from the source, in a hands-on way, so you knew the options before diving into college or a trade?
That’s what the ACE Mentor Program is all about. Every year 4,000 professionals help 10,000 high school students across the nation learn about architecture, engineering, and construction. It’s the starting point for well-informed choices—and successful, satisfying careers. Employees from GLY have participated in this program as mentors for over 10 years.
In a time when technology rules, the construction industry needs to continue finding ways to connect with people who are interested in this field. We need to appeal to a more diverse workforce, including women and people from under-represented ethnic groups. Over 40% of ACE mentees are female, and 69% are ethnic minorities.
I'm one of eight ACE Mentors from GLY this year, and it’s been a great experience. I'd like to tell you why, along with thoughts from some of my co-workers.
Learning Through Immersion
Any high school student is eligible to join their local ACE Mentor Program. Rather than just hearing about various A/E/C industry roles, mentees are immersed in them, gaining exposure to everything from design to construction management to carpentry. They visit jobsites and offices and perform each career's typical tasks. As mentors we explain, coach, teach, and guide at every step.
Students from the ACE Mentor Program tour a GLY jobsite with their mentors.
In the Seattle area the program runs from November to May. Students are grouped into teams, each with multiple mentors and a program that includes 15 meetings. The student teams design and build a project throughout the year and present the results as the culmination of what they learned.
There are 10 local teams this year and GLY participants are currently helping lead teams from Bellevue and Seattle. This year we’re guiding students through designing, coordinating, and construction planning for a fire station. This gives students exposure on what it takes to construct a building. They dove in headfirst, asking questions about the typical day as a firefighter, and about how to ensure the fire station felt PNW-local and sustainably designed. All of the students demonstrated the ability to take a complex concept and run with it. It’s fun to watch.
What Do We Want Students to Learn?
Mentors share ACE's mission, but we all bring our own inspiration and favorite messages. Mine is to highlight how the A/E/C fields are vast, and how design and construction work best as a collaborative process. As a high school student, I had a very narrow-minded view of what fields were available to me, and what each of these careers did on a daily basis.
GLY Senior Project Engineer Steven Bradshaw wants to show the cool factor—how you can “plan and execute cutting-edge projects using the best new technologies”—and GLY Project Engineer Alissa Coupe hopes to convey the value of working in the trades and emphasize its career growth opportunities. At the same time she likes to point to the variety of roles in project management. "Working for a contractor does not mean you have to swing a hammer."
The program does an excellent job of highlighting all of the pieces of the A/E/C pie, and many ACE Mentor Program graduates have gone on to pursue careers in the trades. The goal, from my perspective, is to help expose students to the day-to-day responsibilities of each of the careers, and hopefully spark interest in one of the fields in particular. This better prepares them to make decisions and confidently pick paths that impact the rest of their careers.
Has Mentoring Been Worthwhile?
Definitely. It’s rewarding to see the students' rate of absorption—they’re extremely receptive to new concepts and pick things up quickly. In a recent session reviewing design requirements, the students were engaged in active dialogue with one another about structural spans of different materials as they considered the practical and aesthetic implications of each option. A student also said “Well, if we want to stay within budget, we could make sure all of our bathrooms and showers are located next to one another or stacked.” They’re taking away major concepts taught to them along the way.
GLY Project Engineer Lu Mujica pointed out the joy of watching students learn. "The first time a student asked me something specific, and my explanation changed their view about construction, it definitely motivated me to keep mentoring." Alissa agreed. "It's especially gratifying when you see an interest spark for a student, and the flood gate of questions open."
Steven said it's encouraging to see students so advanced, willing to learn, and free to put themselves out there. "These students have impressed me with their ability to discuss, ask questions, and work together." Many even show team leadership abilities.
The ACE final presentation with some of our past mentees: GLY Principal Tess Wakasugi-Don, far right, and Senior Project Engineer Kyle Applebury, middle of back row.
Did WE Understand Our Careers in High School?
The short answer from Lu, Steven, Alissa, and me is no. We knew we wanted to build things, but we didn't know that construction companies offer a bunch of interesting and varied careers involving technology, management, coordination, and creative challenges.
I worked in architecture before finding construction. It took time to arrive on what was exactly right for many of us, and in talking to colleagues, we all arrived at our careers through different paths. Now we're helping the next generation find their careers from the start.
You Can Be an ACE Mentor
If you're an A/E/C professional, you're wanted! ACE needs more mentors, as well as guest speakers and other volunteers. The commitment for mentors is up to 30 hours over the six-month commitment—not much versus your importance to students.
Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested to hear more about my experience. Or see more from ACE here [for volunteering] or here [local chapter].
There's no time like the present, and no present like the time.