CRE's Next Generation: Blach Construction's Kim Scott On Recruiting An Even More Diverse Generation Into Construction
This series asks rising stars in commercial real estate about their thoughts on some of the biggest issues facing the industry, such as inequality, climate change and technology.
The future of the U.S. construction industry depends on successfully recruiting new talent in all parts of the business, including a wide range of skilled workers, project managers and executives, according to Blach Construction Vice President, Business Development Kim Scott.
To keep up with the demand for talent, the industry cannot ignore the possibilities of recruiting outside its traditionally male and White labor pools. The industry has made considerable progress along these lines in recent years, Scott said, but has to focus more intently on such recruitment, beginning when potential workers are young.
"Resources are being allocated towards diversity and inclusion in the industry, and recruiting practices are changing [to] make sure that companies head in the right direction," Scott said. "We've always known that intuitively the industry still falls short, but we really dug into the numbers and there aren't enough minorities or people from diverse backgrounds going into architecture, engineering, construction or related areas of study."
So a priority for the construction business is now to help educate youth from diverse backgrounds to make sure that they know that the industry even exists. For its part, Scott said, Blach participates in career fairs, workshops and classroom projects to get the word out that construction is an interesting, worthwhile career, and not just one for White men anymore.
"Most of the people in construction came into the industry because their dad or their uncle or grandpa was in construction, not because it's something they always heard about themselves," Scott said.
In fact, Scott herself knew about the field because her father was a general contractor. Growing up in the Bay Area, she attended community college and then UC Berkeley, earning a bachelor's degree in civil engineering. Afterward, she started at Blach, which is based in the Bay Area, as an entry-level project engineer, working on numerous projects in the field. About 10 years ago, she moved into a business development role at the company.
"I didn't realize I wanted to go into construction until I was in college in my civil engineering program, where there were only a handful of women," Scott said. "I knew I was going to be in the minority wherever I worked, and when I started out, I definitely felt that more than I do now.
"I felt like I had to work a lot harder and know my stuff more than my male peers, because you're viewed differently as a woman in the field," she said, adding that in more recent years, and especially at Blach, her gender hasn't been an issue.
"Gender diversity is very much accepted here, and we have a lot of women in our operations teams and all across the company," Scott said. "The hardest part has been working with architects or subcontractors and other trade contractors for whom women are less common in their fields."
That too is changing, she said, but it has to change more. She said she is confident that construction will accept more women and people of color, because on the whole the industry has proved itself nimble enough to adapt to changes of all kinds.
"I don't know the statistics, but I think a lot of women go into technical fields like construction and end up leaving, maybe after they have a family. But that's changing, fortunately. We're seeing the industry become more accepting of work-life balance and working moms."
For her part, she said, she is passionate about family. She and her husband have two sons. "It's very easy for people to get wrapped up in a career and just work, work, work. But it's critical to take time to connect with your family," she said. "I feel like I've done a lot at Blach to set the tone for working parents and advocate for parents to have a good work-life balance."
The construction industry's response to the coronavirus pandemic is another example of the industry adapting to change. As have many businesses, the industry discovered that not everything needs to be done in person, Scott said, and adapted itself to social distancing in a hurry. But it wasn't easy.
"It was quite a shock at first," she said. "We're an industry used to working at close quarters with each other, on job sites working elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder, face to face. That had to change and it had to change fast."
"Obviously you can't hammer a nail into a wall at a job site from your home office, but a lot of other aspects of our business can be done remotely, and the industry has fully embraced that," she said, along with COVID-19 safety protocols for the workers that do have to be on-site.
In some ways, taking steps to mitigate the risk of coronavirus infection isn't so unusual for the construction industry, she said. After all, mitigating risk on a construction site, with its numerous potential hazards, is an ongoing process and a constant struggle for construction companies. Requiring masks and distance and health checks are just additional ways to deal with risks to worker safety.
In the case of Blach, workers have been honest if they have been exposed to the disease, Scott said, which is especially important since so many people are asymptomatic and can still spread the coronavirus. So far, she said, the company has been fortunate.
"We've had a couple of people feeling sick and getting tested, but coming out negative, such as in one case I remember hearing it was food poisoning or something like that, instead of COVID," she said. "We take every precaution. If somebody exhibits symptoms, they're sent home."
Some of the changes wrought by the pandemic will linger afterward, Scott said, especially changed attitudes toward remote work, as they have in other industries.
"We've proven that there are a lot of efficiency benefits to remote work," she said. "That will continue, maybe not to the extent it is right now, but it will be a lot more prevalent than it was before the pandemic. So that's definitely one impact."
Another longer-term impact of the pandemic will be on building design, Scott said, noting that any changes might take years to play out. A lot of the private sector office space projects have been put on hold because companies don't know what their offices will need to look like when the pandemic is over, including visible design elements that promote social interaction (or not) and less visible features such as ventilation. But at some point, she said, those projects are going to move forward.
"On the other hand, work has ramped up in some sectors, such as in educational facilities. 'We don't have students on campus,' is the thinking, and 'Let's do more work and get ready for them to return.'"
"Construction is about putting together the built environment that we all live in, that shapes the way we live," Scott said. "It's fascinating to me how construction is a never-ending business, and that's one reason I want to be in it."