Traveling from around the country, the 2022 National Top 20 Under 40 met in person for the first time to be photographed at Tempe Town Lake’s Tempe Beach Park in Tempe, Ariz.
Photo by Jessica Savidge
The occasion served as a starting point to shape grand ideas into groundbreaking solutions, and there was no shortage of ground to cover when ENR’s 2022 National Top 20 Under 40 assembled this year in Tempe, Ariz., for a conference and a conversation on the industry’s top issues.
From fostering firm-wide innovation to mentoring the next generation of workers to preparing for the effects of climate change, the Top 20 quickly found that their diverse professional backgrounds brought new dimensions to these hotly debated topics.
But all agreed that they wanted to focus on how to move the needle forward and make a positive impact in their respective fields today while paving the way for success tomorrow.
Chosen by industry judges from nearly 400 entries, this year’s Top 20 is ENR’s sixth annual group of national winners and the first to meet in person since the pandemic pushed the young professionals’ meeting online for two years. Happy to be face-to-face and ready to talk about the industry’s challenges, the Top 20 spoke from experience about how the right change, even at an organization’s level, is rarely a straight line.
While AEC firms can bid on projects that align with their own environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals, project owners play a big role in implementing industry wide initiatives such as diversity, equity and inclusion, green building and sustainability, says Jennifer Anna Pazdon, vice president of New York City-based Cast Connex Corp. She says industry professionals must do more to engage owners in long-term conversations about such goals. “As much as I like to believe that people are altruistic in all their decision-making, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect that the design or the construction side is going to make radical change alone,” says Pazdon. “Ultimately we all work for the people with the money—which are the owners.”
At the meeting, held during ENR’s Top Young Professionals conference in Tempe, Ariz., Feb. 23-25, the Top 20 also emphasized the need to look at the industry’s future through the lens of climate change as they weighed how to implement needed steps in a rapidly transforming industry.
Although Jeff King and Jennifer Anna Pazdon could not attend the in-person Top 20 meeting, they did not miss the conversation. In wide-ranging interviews, conducted separately, their perspectives on industry challenges were perfectly in sync with the larger group. But their solutions set them apart.
Photos courtesy of Top 20 Under 40 Winners
Altering the Conversation Around Climate Change
Pazdon says that in her experience, policy change is the best way to ensure sustainable design remains fashionable, as does reducing carbon emissions. “A green skyscraper is kind of an oxymoron,” she says. “If things are really going to change, it has to be mandated. It has to be something that comes from government.”
Although she says the industry has not landed on a single way to measure embodied carbon, she says there are many life cycle assessment tools. “But the data that goes into them in order to determine embodied carbon, if that’s going to be the ultimate output, really needs to be studied carefully.”
Firms should also educate owners at the local and national level about sustainable design methods early on in the relationship to demystify the process and the price tag, says Alicia Loh Ortiz, business unit leader at DPR Construction, based out of the firm’s Newport Beach, Calif., office.
“There’s a feeling that building sustainably or building with climate change in mind is at a premium,” she says. In California, the Title 24 energy code and the CalGreen building code are two complementary government-regulated codes that help address energy, water and resource efficiency. “It’s a positive thing that really pushes us to more sustainable building design,” Ortiz says. “I think we’re lucky.”
For contractors and subcontractors to have a bigger impact on sustainable design and climate resilience efforts, they need to be brought to the table earlier, says Ortiz. “If we can really push a design-build approach, we can start to consider things that are going to have bigger levers to pull,” she says.
On the client side, pilot testing can also be a way to implement change on a controlled scale and show clients the results, says Daniel O. Roop, project manager at Tighe & Bond Inc., Worcester, Mass.
An environmental engineer, Roop specializes in coastal resilience for water and wastewater infrastructure. He helps communities navigate the Massachusetts Dept. of Environmental Protection & Clean Water Trust Asset Management Plan grant process, resulting in more than $2 million in project costs to help communities prioritize risk-based capital improvements. Pilot testing played a role in securing those improvements.
Communities often don’t want to be the guinea pig for massive environmental projects in their backyards, he says, although funding opens communities to more opportunities to test solutions.
Roop points to a recent project to help reinforce a riverbank, where erosion would cause sewer “discharge into one of largest clam flats in Massachusetts and bathing beaches—just really bad economic and environmental implications,” he says.
From left to right, Bobby Youngblood, Ariel Greenlaw, Jennifer Pangborn, Leila Zheng and John Costello focused on technology, innovation and recruitment during their roundtable discussion.
Photo by Jessica Savidge
Roop’s team designed a solution using biostabilization instead of building flood walls. “This tiered level approach takes advantage of elements such as coconut core-wrapped soil lifts and native plantings,” he explains. “So you’re recreating what nature does, using the roots and all of this biomaterial to stabilize the bank.”
Results from such test projects could be useful in selling systems to other communities where there are identical needs, says Anne Kuechenmeister, planning department manager at Michael Baker International, Lakewood, Colo. Firm clients include the Federal Emergency Management Agency as well as numerous cities, counties and departments of transportation.
To mitigate flooding and sea-level rise, “a vertical wall doesn’t take up much space; a tiered system that allows enough permeability for growth on a bank takes up space,” she explains. “As you get into urban areas, you’re asking someone for space that is theirs,” which can be a really hard sell.
But if a tiered system is “going to do a better job in the long run to protect whatever you own behind it,” the case for it becomes more convincing, says Kuechenmeister. “It’s very personal. But the benefits, especially as things become more impactful with climate change, I think it will start to tip where they say ‘Okay, I’d be willing to give that up and put in a nice green area that will actually protect my asset in a more compelling way.’ Not everyone’s there yet.”
As climate change conversations become more inextricably tied to conversations about the future, AEC firms can help owners weigh short-term and long-term solutions to help protect the communities at greater risk, says Tupac de la Cruz, founder and operations manager at Roofing Solutions. Based in New Orleans, Jackson, Miss., Phoenix and in his native San Jose, Costa Rica, de la Cruz’s teams have seen climate change’s devastating effects firsthand. Action must be taken now, rather than waiting until after at-risk areas are hit again, he says.
“We know that in 2050, the ocean is going to rise one foot. Flooding is going to be unbelievable,” cautions de la Cruz. “Why are we not preventing for those things to happen now?”
From left to right, Mara Johnston, Chris Fletcher, Alandren Etlantus and Manuel Hoyo tackled technology and innovation during their breakout discussion.
Photo by Jessica Savidge
The $1.2-trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides funding for state agencies to use on infrastructure improvements that will also help mitigate the effects of climate change. But what parts of the country receive priority for that funding, and how and when it flows, has become a big question for state agencies.
With preparation and planning, firms can help owners prioritize their needs so projects can be quickly moved forward when funding is in place, says Ariel Greenlaw, a traffic engineering section manager at HNTB Corp., South Portland, Maine. It’s also a way for firms to insure funding reaches areas most in need first, she says. “We’ve been providing grant writing services and trying to help our clients identify and set goals up,” says Greenlaw. “It’s a tough thing because they don’t have the long list of projects needs, their dream projects, in there.”
In addition to competing for funding, projects tied to the funding law are also up against time, says Greenlaw. “So you’re looking at [how you] get this done and planned in two months and be competitive with the other states,” she says.
At WSP USA, Jennifer Pangborn says the firm has been working with cities to focus on their procurement process to become better prepared “so that they can expedite or evaluate projects differently,” she says.
“When more money is coming in, even if they don’t have that long list of projects, they can quickly identify needs based on the community users,” says Pangborn, a St.Louis-based regional assistant vice president and ITS manager. “So we’ve been trying to help them prepare in a different way that we’ve never really had to in our industry before.”
Top 20 professionals report that some markets are still in recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, while others have already rebounded—but a strained supply chain and inflated costs can stop projects in their tracks.
Meanwhile on the municipal side, clients have to move forward with projects regardless of market conditions because the consequence of not doing them would affect public health, Roop notes.
In his experience, adjusting contract duration has been a solution to give a longer construction timeline until substantial completion. “That way the threat of liquidated damages are reduced,” he says.
A more integrated approach is another solution, from design-build to simply bringing on a contractor early for preconstruction services, Ortiz adds.
“That’s what our customers are looking for is bringing on that expertise early and helping to guide them through the process,” she says. “And it is such a volatile market. Just within a six-month preconstruction period, your initial estimate is based on a conceptual or schematic versus detailed design. In our case, we do a lot of guaranteed max price. And it’s been crazy to see that change and fluctuation just within a single project precon period.”
From left to right, Alicia Loh Ortiz, Daniel O. Roop, Anne Kuechenmeister and Tupac de la Cruz shared concerns about climate change, the supply chain and labor.
Photo by Jessica Savidge
As state agencies prepare for federal funding, Top 20 professionals report that many of their firms have increased recruitment efforts to prepare for an influx of work in affected markets, driving an increased demand for skilled labor at all levels in the industry.
“Now that we have so much more funding, everybody is recruiting. Owners are trying to hire like crazy,” says Leila Zheng, who manages bridge projects and transportation alternative delivery resources for HDR in Olympia, Wash. This is working its way to design and construction, “and we’re all just competing with each other for the same talent,” she says.
As a specialty subcontractor, de la Cruz shares that one of his biggest concerns is ongoing supply chain hiccups. “It’s hitting the whole industry,” he says. “I am hoping that it gets fixed—hopefully not through a recession, but through just manufacturers being able to keep up and ports being able to receive some raw materials to make some of the components that we need.”
Weighing in on labor, one challenge is having four generations in the workforce—‚Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X and Baby Boomers—all with their own distinct views on careers in construction, de la Cruz says.
“We continue to proactively work with the trade schools and local high schools so that we can attract some of these kids that decide not to go undergrad,” he says. “But it’s complicated.”
Bobby Youngblood, director of engineering at PCL Industrial Construction Co., Katy, Texas, agrees that labor recruitment has been difficult. But he admits that at times, an inability to change and adapt to new technology can be the issue.
In heavy industrial work, “we’re doing a terrible job” at embracing technology and implementing innovation, he says. “It’s even trickled down into the effect of us retaining younger talent.” To solve this, PCL has been placing younger employees in leadership positions to drive fresh perspectives and new ideas, he says.
ENR’s 2022 National Top 20 Under 40 is the sixth annual selection of rising construction sector professionals who gather for an in-person or virtual roundtable to discuss the industry’s most pressing issues ahead, with the fruit of that interaction presented in this story. This year, however, ENR editors decided that one story is not enough space for all the knowledge and insights shared by these top minds.
We decided to continue to tap into our national winners’ hard-won views on trends and topics as they arise throughout the remainder of the calendar year, in what we are calling the Future Forum. As members of this prestigious forum, this year’s Top 20 Under 40 group will be sources for online or print content that highlights their perspectives on various topics that most pertain to their expertise, sector, discipline or generation. If there’s an issue or topic that you would like to hear what these young leaders have to say about it, please feel free to reach out to either them or ENR. We hope you look forward to hearing more from these rising stars as much as we do.
For many firms facing a labor shortage, the time could be right for innovation, says Zheng.
“I think it’s very important that we all realize we have to get creative beyond just recruiting civil engineers or trying to find people who have left the industry [and getting them to come back],” she says.
Referencing a recent study by the MIT Sloan Management Review about the ‘Great Resignation,’ Zheng notes that employees pushing for more innovation to be adopted within their organizations also are more likely to leave. The study says that employees’ feeling of fighting an uphill battle without bearing fruit can be demoralizing and exhausting.
“There also needs to be acceptance from a management standpoint that it’s worth investing in differentiation in the long game, even if there is a chance a tool may fail, design rework may be necessary or there may not be a directly billable application yet,” says Zheng.
One misconception is that innovation has to be big, says Alandren Etlantus, senior vice president at Bohannan Huston Inc. in Albuquerque, N.M. But employees don’t need to “make a huge change and a huge difference for that to count,” she says.
In talking about how their employers handle implementing new ideas, some Top 20 professionals noted innovation initiatives where new ideas are heard, fleshed out and potentially developed and deployed.
Chris Fletcher, a project director at McCarthy Building Cos. in Henderson, Nev., says his company’s Spark Tank ensures that employees’ innovative ideas don’t “go on deaf ears.”
Etlantus and Manuel Hoyo, senior superintendent at Skanska USA Building in Boston, agree that breaking it down to smaller innovations before taking large leaps is one way to guard against burnout.
“The small steps are more impactful because they can help out and drive bigger change,” Hoyo says.
Ultimately, listening to employees is what’s most important, says Mara Johnston, co-founder and managing principal of Keystone Global in Jericho, N.Y. “Companies will fail, or not perform as well, if they are not listening to their employees and their needs,” she says.
The younger generation has ideas and wants to be heard, says John Costello, IMEG Corp. principal and client executive in Minneapolis. He shares that his company recently created a director of innovation position, as well as an idea program that allows employees to focus on ideas for six months and pause their regular work.
“We’ve got about 60 offices around the country. So it’s going to take a while to get this program to flourish,” he says, but “I’m excited to see where that’s going to go for us.”
From left to right, Adam Paulitsch, Stephanie McCay, Erin Murphy, Heather Wyld and Diego de Veyga talked about leadership and mentoring, as well as inflation, materials and labor.
Photo by Jessica Savidge
ENR’s 2022 Top 20 Under 40 were selected out of nearly 400 nominations submitted last fall from across the U.S., including Puerto Rico. Candidates had to be under 40 years old as of Jan. 1, 2022. ENR’s 10 regional editions assembled local juries that selected up to 20 people in each part of the country.
The top five scoring candidates in each of the 10 regions automatically advanced to the national level, where a new panel of independent industry judges reviewed those top 50 nominees to choose 20 who represent the pinnacle of leadership skill, community service, work ethic, talent and diversity.
This year’s judges were:
Director of Business Development
Manhattan Construction Co.
Senior Project Manager
FCI Construction Inc.
With the industry’s demand for more labor, the Top 20 says that establishing a mentoring system for new hires is equally important. When interviewing potential candidates, Clark Construction Group Vice President Jeff King says that he makes it clear that the position needs to be a good fit for the firm and the candidate.
“You want to make sure that the candidate understands the commitment and the marriage that they are about to embark on in choosing this career path,” says Bethesda, Md.-based King, who also serves as a mentor outside of work and volunteers as a lacrosse coach.
Setting a clear career path encourages transparency and helps new hires understand how their careers will advance, the Top 20 agree. But mentoring should not stop at new hires. Being an effective manager often requires mentoring as well to close the gap between new and retiring leaders, the group says.
“Most of us, our first promotion was because we are really good engineers,” says Diego de Veyga, area manager, northwest division for Flatiron Construction, Concord, Calif. But that does not mean the same employees would immediately make good managers, he says.
“We are often put in this position with no real [training on] how you lead people,” says de Veyga.
Adam Paulitsch, principal at Populous in Kansas City, Mo., equates being thrust into a management role to suddenly switching to an entirely different career. “Fundamentally in the construction industry, you just see that there is a huge education gap between the skills side and the actual operating of a business,” he says.
“How do you get someone to do something else well is a whole different skill set,” adds Erin Murphy, director of environmental services for VHB in Atlanta. “Coming from that engineering and scientific background, it’s not something that we were ever really taught, and trying to impart that knowledge to the next generation is really challenging.”
At VHB, managing other employees doesn’t automatically equate to success in the company, she says. “There are lots of other paths to success,” Murphy points out.
One solution is a level of training into which firms must be ready to invest time and money, says Heather Wyld, project manager and senior engineer at CHA Consulting Inc. in Albany, N.Y. “I think [most] of us come from a technical background, so it’s not something that really comes natural to us,” she says.
Speaking from a nontechnical background, Stephanie McCay, director of U.S. communications for PCL Construction in Denver, says every industry is experiencing knowledge gaps due to the labor shortage, and it makes properly training the workforce you have that much more important. “I think there needs to be whole education in any industry that just because you are a ‘doer’ and you are successful ‘doing’ doesn’t mean you are going to be successful leading,” she says.
While gathered in Tempe, Ariz., in February, the 2022 national Top 20 Under 40 networked with attendees of the first ever in-person ENR Top Young Professionals conference.
Photo by Jessica Savidge
While the Top 20 potentially have many years ahead in the industry, mentoring the next generation of managers should also include succession planning, they assert.
While that planning remains one of the hottest topics in an ever-aging industry, it means more than just an employer’s owner or managers conceiving a plan to hand over the reins to a younger generation.
A bottom-up approach to succession planning is necessary, according to the Top 20. Considering where an employee can contribute not just today but “decades from now,” during the hiring process is crucial, says Keystone Global’s Johnston.
Skanska’s Hoyo says his company encourages employees to find someone they can train as a replacement. He says taking such an approach breaks down succession planning to a granular level of just position-by-position, and not thinking about it as turning over an entire company. “It gives a company the opportunity to grow organically that way too,” he says.
Fletcher says McCarthy’s motto is “bring somebody up before you take on the next role.” He says it’s important to “intentionally target those that you recognize as having high potential within your company” and make “the time to be willing to have those one-on-ones and those check-ins.”
But Etlantus cautions that finding your replacement does not mean he or she will do the job “exactly the way that I do it.”
Culture is crucial. Creating a rewarding workplace environment is “important in your succession because those people are more likely to stay,” Johnston says.
Emell Derra Adolphus has more than a decade of writing and journalism experience. He is senior editor of ENR’s Top Lists and Survey Rankings at ENR magazine and frequently contributes stories on technology, climate resiliency, diversity, equity and inclusion.
Aileen Cho, ENR's senior transportation editor, is a native of Los Angeles and recovering New Yorker. She studied English and theater at Occidental College, where a reporter teaching the one existing journalism course encouraged her to apply for the LA Times Minority Editing Training Program. Her journalism training led to her first stories about transportation, working as a cub reporter with the Greenwich Time. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times. Many of her experiences with engineers and contractors have inspired material for her alternative theater productions way, way off Broadway. For ENR, Aileen has traveled the world, clambering over bridges in China, touring an airport in Abu Dhabi and descending into dark subway tunnels in New York City. She is a regular at transportation conferences, where she finds that airport and mass transit engineers really know how to have fun. Aileen is always eager to hop on another flight because there are so many interesting projects and people, and she gets tired of throwing her cats off her computer in her home office in Long Beach, California. She is a very conflicted Mets/Dodgers fan.
Louise Poirier is editor of ENR Texas & Louisiana, which covers Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas, and ENR Southwest, which covers Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico. She joined ENR's staff in 2012 and reports from Houston.
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