Who are the individuals who will work in this industry in the future, and what will they demand in their work environments? Even with a potential recession on the horizon, this group will require increased flexibility, autonomy, and continuous learning opportunities to stay engaged, motivated, and productive. I sat down with Christina Zweig Niehues, Director at Zweig Group to discuss this topic in further detail.

Christina will be presenting about it at the upcoming Disrupt Symposium, 1-3rd Nov 2022. If you haven’t yet, get your tickets here: www.disruptsymposium.com

With industry performance metrics shattering all-time records, there’s never been a better time to be in this profession. There’s also never been a better time to be running an AEC firm – and that’s where Zweig Group can help. With a vision to Elevate the Industry, Zweig Group’s mission is to be the leader in driving performance and purpose for the AEC industry. Driven by the latest data and case studies from the highest-performing firms in the industry, Zweig Group equips you with the tools and resources you need to be even more successful

Christy Zweig Niehues has a long history of involvement with management consulting and the AEC industry. She has held a number of roles at Zweig Group, including writing and researching for The Zweig Letter, and civil + structural ENGINEER magazine. She’s the firm’s Director of Research & E-commerce as well as the leader of the marketing consulting division. Christina has a passion for online marketing and has worked with many AEC Firms to find the best processes and methods to drive new and repeat business for their individual organizations. Her marketing experience also includes work at The Sustainability Consortium, as a licensed Real Estate Agent, and she runs a horse boarding and training operation for off-the-track thoroughbreds. She holds a master’s degree in business administration and a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Arkansas.

The AEC industry’s most valuable asset is its talented workforce.  This workforce is made up of both the brain power behind the ideas and innovations that shape our built environment and also the people who support the businesses delivering these solutions to the world. Currently, there’s a serious shortage of talent. Most firms are experiencing record backlogs and a very competitive recruiting environment. Less talent in the pipeline, attrition during the pandemic, and overall burnout have only contributed to this problem.

Architects, engineers, environmental scientists, and also the marketing, accounting, and HR professionals who keep these businesses running, all likely have the intelligence, aptitude, and means to pursue a number of career paths. The events of the past few years have only made it more apparent that those working in this industry have a good degree of choice about where to live and work.  Changes in policy brought on by the pandemic have caused many firms to embrace virtual work and consequently opened a door to hire those who might not previously have been considered due to geographic constraints or their need for a flexible schedule. Data backs this, with 72 percent of respondents to Zweig Group’s AEC Workplace of the Future survey reporting their firm changed remote/flexible work options after March 2020, and 53 percent of respondents reporting these changes have positively impacted their ability to hire.

With many other industries also embracing new work models and offering a host of benefits and incentives, the AEC industry is going to have to work harder than ever to convince people that this industry is the one they want to work in. With the AEC Workforce of the Future survey, Zweig Group recently investigated what the upcoming workforce wants out of their workplace and what factors most influence their motivation, creativity, and productivity.  This study, along with the results of the more than 15,000-respondent employee survey of hundreds of AEC firms in Zweig Group’s Best Firms To Work For Program, illuminate the following as the most important factors impacting the industry’s future:

Mission and purpose-driven culture will continue to be necessary to retain individuals for the long term, while the gig economy will dominate short-term, task-oriented roles. Culture is complicated – it is comprised of all the individuals working at a firm, their attitudes toward work, and hundreds of policies, procedures, and benefits that go into creating the systems that make an individual feel as though they are succeeding or able to achieve their purpose.  One of the first questions on Zweig Group’s Best Firms To Work For employee survey asks employees about which factors are most important in their work experience. Overwhelmingly, culture is a clear top pick, followed by compensation, then professional development, and finally performance recognition. 

Respondents to the AEC Workforce of the Future survey were given a number of statements and asked to rate their level of agreement on a 1-5 scale, with 1 representing “Strongly Disagree” and 5 representing “Strongly Agree.” Out of these statements, the second highest rating was, “It is important that my workplace do work that benefits the community or humanity” with an average rating of 4.37/5.

While long-term employment is going to require cultural buy-in, the rise of remote work in the industry and the ability to collaborate virtually means that more companies are embracing a flexible and on-demand workforce. Individuals, especially those with transferrable skills, can choose what firms they want to work for and what projects they want to work on in a model that may prove more lucrative for both the individual and the firms.  A competitive hiring environment and more unpredictable workload for firms will only increase the gig-economy model.

Like the rest of the world, a focus on technology and automation is going to impact the industry. While the impact of virtual collaboration on projects is already apparent, emerging technologies such as virtual reality are just beginning to make their mark.  Training is more important than ever – and, as the No. 1 benefit in demand by AEC industry workers in multiple Zweig Group surveys, it’s also necessary due to the increasing speed and influence of technology on all roles.  Training is necessary to counteract how quickly skills are becoming irrelevant. McKinsey and Company estimated that 87 percent of business organizations are already suffering skill gaps. Organizations of the future will need to build a culture and have appropriate time and budgeting to support existing workers learning new skills. The necessary implementation of new technology within AEC firms will mean that those with leadership emphasizing continuous learning and improvement will have a workforce that is ready to take on new innovations.  Organizations that create their own proprietary technology and train people with specialized skills will also have a much easier time retaining those individuals. It’s no surprise that Zweig Group’s Best Firms To Work For Award-winning firms have all seen increased employee satisfaction with their ability to provide technology to their workforce.

Performance recognition that goes beyond meeting or exceeding KPIs and favorable yearly reviews. There will be a need for a clear structure for performance expectations and upward career paths in this industry.  The AEC Workforce of the Future survey asked respondents to rate the level of importance of various factors involved in their choice of workplace. It’s clear that personal connection at work is extremely important, with the highest rating scores tied for both statements, “It is important that people at my workplace will notice my efforts” and “It is important that I have a mentor at my organization.”  Looking at the environments that affect productivity, respondents rated very highly (score of 4.2/5), “I am more productive when I know other members of my team depend on me.”

Authority is important because it gives people a feeling that they have a measure of control over their lives. It can be a motivator to move up in an organization and gives additional purpose to work. Those feeling that their level of responsibility is high, but have no authority to make decisions that impact their work environment will feel overworked, frustrated, and may experience burnout.  Looking back at the Best Firms To Work For, the employee survey asks individuals to rate their agreement with the statement, “My level of authority accurately reflects my level of responsibility.” While average scores for this were high (around 4.5/5), the results examined by race and age indicate some disparity, with African Americans (3.9/5) and those in the younger age group feeling less positive about this statement than older, white employees.  With hybrid and virtual work, this sense of achievement and connection to team members and leadership will only become more influential. 

So what does the AEC workforce of the future look like? It’s comprised of many diverse individuals working in a multitude of ways. They will work at firms that have embraced tech and crafted systems that allow people to learn, grow, and feel connected (no matter where they work). These organizations will know that their culture is created by their unique and differentiated mission and vision, and not by benefits like ping-pong tables and ice cream socials.

For AEC firm leaders, if you’re looking to improve recruitment or retention at your firm, look to some of the above slightly more intangible factors that are affecting your employee sentiment. Perks and benefits won’t fix a culture problem but providing an environment where people feel they can succeed in the way that is most important to them will. 

The AEC Workforce of the Future survey is still open for participation and any scores or responses cited in this article are based on the current level of participation prior to the date of publication. 

To catch Christina’s presentation at the Disrupt Symposium, get your ticket here: www.disruptsymposium.com