How to Promote Diversity and Inclusion: Insights from Black Construction Professionals

diversity in construction

Today, Black people are underrepresented in the construction industry. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that Black people comprise just 6% of the U.S. construction workforce. According to the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), this low percentage is due to a lack of familiarity with the industry.

Another significant issue is that Black and minority workers regularly experience racism and bias in the industry. As one example, ENR reports, “Black leaders say they more often see an underlying systemic racism that disadvantages Black workers in everything from training opportunities to reaching the C-Suite.”

These are all important matters that the industry needs to be aware of — and address.

To that end, we’re holding a special panel session at Autodesk University (November 17-21) titled Blacks and Minorities in AEC: Perspective of Diversity and Inclusion. The session will shed light on the importance of diversity, inclusion, and equity in the AEC space and how the industry can combat racism and bias. The panel will also discuss how organizations can address skills shortages by supporting diverse groups such as minorities.

The panel will be moderated by Cliff Cole, Director of Virtual Design and Construction at The PENTA Building Group. Cole will be joined by a panel of Black professionals in the AEC field, including:

  • Dwayne Sellars, Senior VDC Manager at W. M. Jordan Company
  • Lorrin Blair, PE, Manager, Technical Solutions, at Autodesk
  • Vincent J. Spencer, Architect – Associate Principal, AIA, LEED AP, CPTED-CPD at LS3P Associates Ltd.
  • Kim Bates, Vice President, CIO, Webcor

Below, we explore a few of the key insights and takeaways ahead of the panel session. Have a look below, and be sure to catch the full session at AU 2020.

What Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity Truly Mean in Today’s World

The conversation will kick off a discussion on the differences between diversity, inclusion, and equity (DI&E).

According to the panelists, while being diverse certainly has a racial component to it, true diversity transcends race and involves having individuals with different experiences, ideas, and skills.

Vincent J. Spencer, Architect – Associate Principal, AIA, LEED AP, CPTED-CPD at LS3P Associates Ltd.

“Diversity to me means a welcome embrace of all individuals and taking value in those individual differences between that group. When I say that, I’m talking about personality, learning style, life experiences beyond just culture or gender, but also religious, faith, and any kind of social economic class,” says Spencer.

According to Blair, diversity is “about bringing people together that have different backgrounds, different opinions, different experiences, and getting them in the same room.”

On the other hand, inclusion is “making sure that everyone has a voice and that they feel welcomed. They’re not afraid to share opinions and to share their differences with each other. It’s not just about bringing people together, but making sure that there’s that welcoming part of it as well,” Blair says.

And then there’s equity, which is creating opportunities for underrepresented individuals.

“Equity to me is about an even balance,” shares Sellars. “Is there opportunity for everyone to be at an even scale, and is there opportunity to have an equal stake in the game?”

Why DI&E is Good for Business

DI&E values have a material effect not just on the culture of organizations, but on their output and bottom line. Organizational diversity, inclusion, and equity empower employees and encourage higher levels of performance.

Kim Bates, Vice President, CIO, Webcor

“When you have folks who are feeling good about themselves, their colleagues, and the culture of the organization, they’re going to produce really great outcomes. This naturally garners innovation and creativity; this, coupled with a sense of belonging, is a win-win. I get energized off of people having a good time at work, sharing ideas – feeling heard, being productive, and meeting objectives,” says Bates.

Diversity and inclusion also open up the organization to new ideas and an improved ability to solve problems — both of which lead to better output.

According to Blair, to solve problems in the best way possible, it’s important to have “diverse ideas, solutions, and ways of thinking.”

“It’s important to have a diverse team regardless of what you’re doing, because it just gives you the opportunity to have so many different opinions and come up with better solutions.”

On Dealing with Racial Discrimination and Bias

Racial discrimination and bias can come in many forms. The “right” way to deal with discrimination and implicit bias depends on the situation and the people involved. When asked how panelists handle these situations, they offered the following advice.

Be Open to Frank Conversations

The most important step to take towards more diversity and inclusion is to keep talking about them.

As Blair puts it, “we need to continue to have those conversations, to recognize those differences, and if there are problems coming up, we need to call them out.”

Doing that isn’t always easy, and the panelists acknowledge that. “It’s one of the hardest things to do, at least for me,” continues Blair.

Sellars offers similar advice, saying, “a lot of this can be handled by having conversations.”

“And that’s where I think people are afraid… They’re comfortable with their naive ignorance as I call it. It’s easy to stay in.”

But overcoming fear and discomfort is critical, he continues.

“Stop being scared. You can have a conversation with somebody and be respectful, even in different singular opinions or values. I can walk away with that conversation and say, ‘All right, you have your opinion. You have your value, I have mine. And we both respect each other. Let’s move on.’”

Successful dialog involves empathy and understanding of what the other person is going through, adds Cole.

“We have to have more empathy for ourselves, we have to care. And to do that — especially if you’re not aware of what’s happening or if you’re ignorant to what’s going on —  you should ask the question, engage in dialogue. We’re all people and we should talk to each other.”

Find Allies

Allyship is also essential.

Lorrin Blair, PE, Manager, Technical Solutions, at Autodesk
Lorrin Blair, PE, Manager, Technical Solutions, at Autodesk

“Finding allies is one thing to do. Here at Autodesk, for example, we also have the Autodesk Black Network, which has been something that I’ve started to get involved with. And it’s been very nice to be able to connect with people that at least look like me. We still have different experiences and different backgrounds, but it’s really nice to get together with people that I think also have similar experiences to me,” shares Blair.

That being said, having allies who don’t look like you is a must, as well and Blair encourages people to seek out individuals with which they can align regardless of skin color.

Bates agrees: “It is about allyship, and folks seeing you, your work product, what you stand for, and believing in you. A key factor in that is simply having more conversations, making connections, and seeing people for who they are; and sharing who you are.”

What Organizations Can Do to Promote Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity

Affecting change requires actions both at an individual level (e.g., having conversations and finding allies) as well as on the organizational side.

To that end, the panelists shed light on what their respective organizations are doing to promote DI&E.

Assess Where the Company Stands in Terms of Diversity

Sellars says that while W. M. Jordan has committed to doing behind-the-scenes work around minority STEM programs, they’re continuously taking steps to better promote diversity.

Dwayne Sellars, Senior VDC Manager at W. M. Jordan Company
Dwayne Sellars, Senior VDC Manager at W. M. Jordan Company

“The next step is, ‘Let’s do an assessment and say, where do we stand? What are our metrics? Where do we want to be in terms of diversity?’ That’s the conversation we’re having; every company should look at that.”

He continues, “We also need to examine our strategic approach to create more diversity. Let’s analyze our system of recruitment, management training, hiring, and mentoring — these all can get us to where we want to be.”

Create a Platform on Which to Promote DI&E

According to Bates, Webcor is in the early phase of implementing its diversity and inclusion initiatives. “There’s a new energy around creating the platform for all people to have conversations. It’s opening the gate to say, ‘This is a sensitive time, it’s a little bit fragile, so we’re just talking. Let’s all come together; unfortunately, it’s on Zoom, but let’s create opportunities to have some conversations.’”

And while Bates hopes they started the platform sooner, Webcor is committed to DI&E. “We all hold the responsibility of having done something a little bit sooner or having it established already. But I will say that resource groups are forming more naturally now that it’s top of mind. So, it’s really cool that they’re getting added support and recognition for coming together and creating a community. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be one ethnic group, but folks that have similar interests.”

Engage Young People

Over at LS3P, Spencer shares that they’re striving to engage young individuals. They’re working with various groups to engage youth members and introduce them to a career in AEC.

“The key is reaching out to our youth as soon as possible. So we’re doing career fairs and, right now during COVID, we’re doing virtual career fairs.”

Spencer says that actively connecting with young people is critical, as many of today’s youth (particularly people of color) are exposed to a limited range of careers.

Architecture is not a typical ”dinner table profession” in the Black community, he explains. The careers that came up were ones “that were associated with the Cosby Show — doctor, attorney, or musician.”

Spencer continues, “Architecture was definitely not part of that. Even with my cousins, it was just like, ‘Architect? Huh, okay.’ It just wasn’t a popular thing. Nowadays it’s great, and that’s what we’re trying to make sure we make it a part of that dinner table conversation as a viable profession.”

Cole agrees, and affirms the importance of engaging young people. “Give them options,” he says. Expose them to the opportunities out there in the world, and not just limited to what you see on TV or what the school says you have to go do.”

Diversify Your Talent

Don’t forget about cultivating a strong and diverse workforce within your company. Cole, shares that this is a priority at PENTA.

Cliff Cole, Director of Virtual Design and Construction at The PENTA Building Group
Cliff Cole, Director of Virtual Design and Construction at The PENTA Building Group

”Our focus right now as a company is how do we retain our talented employees that we have and make them feel like they are included? And like any other company I think there’s room for improvement and work to be done. I think we’re truly understanding what diversity and equity really mean.”

Sellars echoes this and adds that one way to promote DI&E in your employees is to diversify your talent pools. “If you need to find great talent, you can’t find it in the same place every time. So, spreading the load, being diverse in the way you go after talent has to be important,” he says.

Let’s Learn and Take Action Together

One of the ways to fight racism and bias in the industry is to learn what our Black and minority colleagues are going through. In the upcoming AU 2020 conference, you’ll get the opportunity to do just that. With an in-depth discussion about the experiences of Blacks and minorities in construction and seeing what organizations are doing to address these issues, all of us can figure our role in combating racism and creating a more diverse, inclusive, and equal landscape.

AU 2020 will feature a range of sessions specifically dedicated to advancing the industry and shedding light on critical diversity and inclusion topics across AEC. Make sure take a look at our Session list to see a full list of content. Some stand out sessions and topics include:

  • How Media Can Help Drive More Diversity in the Construction Industry: A panel discussion hosted by Niyati Desai, Public Relations Manager at Autodesk, to spark ideas on new topics for coverage and the presentation of content with inclusion in mind, so the media industry can help drive diversity across the construction industry.
  • Social and Economic Equity: How to Advance Minority-Owned Enterprises in AEC: Amie Kromis, National Director of Vendor Diversity at Skanska, will host a fireside chat with CEOs of three MBEs in the AEC industry. The conversation will explore how the AEC industry can support and proactively engage with MBEs in a meaningful way.
  • Equity & the Built Environment: A Conversation on DEI in the Industry: Esther Dsouza, Product Marketing Manager at Autodesk, will host a panel of diverse BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) voices who work towards improving the state of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the AEC industry. They’ll explore how design bias and underrepresentation reinforces endemic design inequities.
  • A Discussion on the Diversity Problem in the AEC Industry: This roundtable, hosted by Purvi Irwin, Practice Manager, Architecture at CADD Microsystems, takes a look at the strategies firms can start employing now to be more inclusive in hiring practices and nurturing the next generation of AEC professionals.

Don’t miss out on the opportunity to be a part of these essential conversations. Register today.


Alyssa Jaber

Customer Marketing Manager, Autodesk Construction Solutions

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