A Look at AEC Remote Learning with ENR
In construction, the best education is the one you get on the job. But in a world where remote learning is the only option, how is the AEC industry—particularly the hands-on field of construction—teaching, mentoring, and hiring students and new graduates? That’s what Debra Rubin, ENR’s Editor-at-Large for management, business, and the workforce, was hoping to find out when she reached out to Greg Dunkle, CAO of STO Building Group, back in September. Now as the college semester is coming to a close, Greg and Debra reconnected to discuss her findings.
Greg DunkleChief Administrative Officer, STO Building Group
Debra RubinEditor-at-Large, ENR
Welcome to STO Building Conversations, a construction podcast powered by the STO Building Group. On today’s episode, Greg Dunkle, chief administrative officer at STO, will be speaking with Debra Ruben, ENR’s editor-at-large for management, business, and the workforce, about how the industry has approached training the next generation of AEC professionals in the COVID age. Debra previously interviewed Greg on this very topic, and, now, they’re reconnecting to discuss her findings.
Well welcome everyone to our STO podcast. I’m excited to introduce Deb Ruben this morning. She is the editor at larg e for ENR, and she recently co-authored an article about how remote learning could affect the next generation of AEC professionals. And we found that topic to be extremely interesting and hope to learn more about what Deb’s research can tell us. So first, obviously the effects of remote learning on the incoming workforce are significant. And as many of our listeners probably know remote learning is also extremely relevant to our younger folks that many are dealing with at home right now, trying to do the hybrid of virtual. And in-person learning both in the K through 12, as well as higher ed, and then also as it’s coming into our workplace. So, knowing how relevant this is and everyone who’s dealing with it, Deb, can you tell us a little bit about how ENR and you decided on this as a topic and how it came about?
Greg. Thanks very much and I appreciate the opportunity to be on this STO podcast on this topic. This hit everybody, I think like a ton of bricks last spring, when, there was no warning and no prep. Suddenly, your working relationships changed. And we were seeing, obviously it was critical in the industry itself, but, in schools and it was just right before the time when a lot of internships are set up and decisions on hiring and graduation. So we thought it was fascinating to look at that time. We did a shorter story back in the spring, dealing with the impacts on internships, how they were being set up and also on craft training, which was huge because without the interaction that you need to have in a field environment and for craft trades to learn what they do, looking at this, we decided, that this was worth the story then. And then we knew of course, that we had to explore it further, not knowing how long the pandemic would last back in April, but obviously it became very clear, later in the summer that this wasn’t going away. So we knew that there would be a huge impact on campuses in terms of training in the fall and everything that’s known to the industry and how it trains people was going to be affected.
Absolutely those challenges I’m sure that you were able to uncover are still being uncovered by many universities and folks at home. Now, are there any of the challenges that came from your research and your dialogue with students that you can share that were a significant or otherwise kind of profound?
As we noted in this story, which are the cover story that we did came out in early September, if anyone wants to go in and read that again, my colleague Bruce Buckley did a phenomenal amount of research with schools and students, and we sort of put this together. It’s also, we wrote the story before a lot of programs that actually started for the fall. So it was not really clear what they were going to do. And they were a lot of changes in the early weeks because they started maybe in, in a partial live environment and then suddenly outbreaks occur, shut down and they had to send students home and go to totally virtual. So I think even though they had a little bit more prep time to create virtual programs and adapt to the new way of interacting in many cases, it was still new territory totally.
And, uh, luckily, I mean, this is an environment where technology has been pretty well used. So the question is, would the technology, they had work for this – it has and it hasn’t. I think it’s, the jury’s out and it certainly depends on, uh, the program and how faculties and students are adapting to it. But in many cases, they have come up with hybrid programs where maybe it’s partially live partially prerecorded lectures. Um, the issue is though, how do you have that personal interaction that is very important to students at this point with each other in certain kinds of classes, capstone projects, that they do, labs, things like that. So I think that, they’re trying to feel their way through and find novel ways of, of adapting the technologies they have. So it probably might be time at the end of the semester for, uh, another look at this to see how well it’s working and whether the issues we raised still exist, or maybe there’s been some new workarounds. Hopefully it has, because I think this is a very critical group. This is the next generation of practitioners, trades people, leaders. So we thought it was worth looking at.
Well certainly they are enduring a whole new paradigm on how to work together, how to collaborate. And as you said, the cohort is going to come out of college with a much different experience than anyone before them for sure. When you talk to different parts of the AEC industry, did you see amongst the disciplines, different thoughts, obviously construction professionals and being on site, the engineers and the architects have different ways of collaborating. Was there different comments and different processes or the ways that they would go about bringing new kids in and bring new students in to work with them in the, in this kind of environment that’s new for everyone?
Yes. I sent queries out to a lot of the contacts we had from our top list, top contractors list, top design firms, even some that were international just to get a cross section of views of what their thoughts were, and this was in early August. So again, it wasn’t quite clear. Um, the contractors were concerned. I mean, you yourself had noted, the issues of what that meant for new hires that maybe didn’t have as much onsite field experience when they were hired now or, or possibly at the end of this year. There was some concern raised about whether everything you need to know onsite and do can be taught virtually, which obviously you can’t. So the question is how are they making this work and get, they can’t get to site? What are the workarounds for this?
Among the, AEs – mixed, I think, I mean, obviously they’re better able possibly to adapt to a virtual environment, but I just got off a conference with design firm CEOs, a bunch of them, virtual conference call and how they’re dealing with this. And some say yes, there’s a savings of space, but others are not sure whether working in a virtual environment only is what they want to do. So it’s not clear across the board. And there’s some concern again about hiring whether or not there’s could be some delays or caveats in terms of whether graduates, how they’re going to be hired, what experience or what their skill level is, whether that’s going to make a difference in hiring. Generally, the schools seem to think it’s not going to make a difference. And many people think it’s a question of how long the pandemic really lasts. If it’s just this year, they don’t see that as a, as a glitch. And there are some benefits, there are some benefits, but if this is the new normal forever, some have some concerns. It’ll be interesting to watch how technology becomes a problem-solver.
That’s fantastic. The technology part of that has obviously taught us all a lot about how to collaborate in a space where we look at the Hollywood squares all day long, if we’re not able to be in the same conference room. Right. And then even the parameters of being in a meeting and trying to take social cues from other folks that aren’t right next to you in order to have a good collaborative conversation. So, thank you. Thank you for that. I appreciate it.
Well, one CEO, I heard her say Zoom is an exhausting environment, she said, so the question is what new issues does it bring up to be on Zoom? But, um, let me, uh, we’ll, we’ll switch over to you maybe to explore a little bit more on how you’ve seen the impacts in the field – you’re in the field, as far as new requirements you have for social distance working and how you’re working around all the issues that you now face in the field.
Yeah. So that’s a great question. So we early on, came up with a playbook to address COVID and the safety protocols, and was able to get that out, especially for essential workers who never really missed a beat. As we apply the hiring and the onboarding of interns and our younger folks, we really need to do to take a look at how they best learn and how do you best learn when you’re in the construction industry is really being shoulder to shoulder. And I used to tell a lot of the younger employees that, you know, some days you need to get out in the field and, and watch some of the, the workforce perform their duties beginning to end, that may be sweating, you know, joints on copper pipe and understanding, you know, what that really looks like and how time consuming it can be in order to appreciate the trade that you’re in.
And it could be as much as watching steel be erected, how’s concrete placed and poured and finished. So those things we found very important, and, you know, we were proud that we still had an internship program through all of this. Albeit, obviously social distancing, we had tons of learning opportunities, very proud of the, of the STO group who took a lot of the remote opportunity to get on our STO Learning 360 platform, and really dig into time when, you know, they would have been commuting. So if you look at what was the benefit, all of a sudden there was some folks, uh, and some of our interns were remote, we had a few new high level employees that started remote and the benefit there was they had, you know, an hour or two an hour and a half each morning or afternoon that they could use for learning. And that was fantastic. And we find that some of the productivity even went, went up during this time for folks who had opportunities to better schedule their time, um, and use it.
Now, when it came into the internships, we still asked them to dress in the PPE, obviously with the added masks and the distancing, and still do some of those things. I think what I found interesting is how it changed the dynamics of our offices in the field where routinely, uh, an office in the field, you could have quite a few folks in a small amount of space in a construction trailer or construction office. And we had to deal with that, 1) to keep everyone safe, but 2) find ways to collaborate. So, as you mentioned, Zoom, GoTo meetings, and Teams became much more important, especially for teams that were asked to transition their days to have less people on site in the same office.
You may spend more time in the field walking the project. You may be a Monday, Wednesday, Friday, but you know, at the end we still needed to supervise the workers and make sure that they were safe and as such the team still needed to do that. So I think, um, we found that to be very successful. We found that even with some of the workers, safety became a little more of an awareness during COVID because they had the ability to look at the proximity of who was around them. And we couldn’t cram too many workers in a smaller space to try to get done. And so that actually helped us with productivity, with quality, and then, their ability to speak up and, and give us feedback on what the job site looks like. And we were, we were pleased with that. So the interns and the young folks were still able to get back out there, although they now had to employ new tools, be more flexible. You know, the onus is really on asking questions and making sure that they feel that as a young employee, that, you know, you need to take your career and you need to embrace the fact that you don’t know anything yet, or don’t know a lot of what’s going on and ask those individuals, why are you doing it that way? And that’s still what we strive for, regardless of what COVID restrictions might be placed on our, on our employees,
In terms of, of technologies, maybe you can share some more on things that you’ve adopted and adapted to fit the new needs. And I’m also interested in how you gained from new hires themselves or your younger employees in terms of how they thought technologies might help solve some of the issues you had in the field and in the office as well, because this is their strong suit. They’re more comfortable with it. How has their experience and their knowledge helped you with what you now face with technology and adapting.
Without a doubt, the new crowd that’s coming out, they can use their thumbs on it on a handheld device, faster than anyone in the history of mankind, right? They are lightning fast on learning new applications. They’re lightning fast on understanding the logic behind what they’re doing and also in the communication. I mean, it’s no, no stranger to see before COVID, you could see a group of 20-somethings at a table in a restaurant, and they’re all communicating, but none of their mouths are moving and, you know, they’re on their devices. So that was a real big benefit. And it’s a big benefit when we use things like HoloBuilder and some of our other technical applications in order to bridge the gap where restrictions for travel for a remote architect or engineer, in many cases, even a developer or an owner, that’s not able to make it to the site due to their company’s restrictions or even regulations from some States that were not able to travel without quarantining.
And by that time, you’ve lost your opportunity to visit a project. So you saw very quickly the adaptations of even if we had the specific technology to offer the workarounds, that they would create even so much as, you know, FaceTiming and the FaceTiming of here’s the RFI, here’s the issue. Do you mind walking out and taking a look with me and presenting that to, to a designer to help us solve some of the solutions that are inherent in our business for construction. So we were really pleased with what they brought because this was right in there in their wheelhouse so to speak on using technology to communicate in an environment that was not really conducive to being shoulder to shoulder, as I say.
So I would say the part of the dynamics that were missing again, we’re having the monthly meetings with all of the constituents on a project. While the meetings still occurred, they were more restricted on comradery, and the value of building a relationship, because I think many times on these venues, you don’t have a chance to ask how was your weekend and how are the kids doing? You might have idle time when someone’s at a project and get to know that they like to fish, or they like to water ski or go golfing. And what are your kids doing? The COVID experience has made us all meeting to meeting, to meeting, to meeting, to meeting back to back in front of a machine with very little time in between to, to have that personal experience, which we really embraced, because you need to get to know the folks that you’re going spend the rest of your career with and COVID was just not helping with that ability to spend time and get to know people.
Yeah, that was brought up by some of the students we interviewed that that was missing from their experience beyond sitting at the computer, the interactive activities that they would have. And for some, it was important for them to decide to have that, whether they wanted to even be in the industry and make a career out of it. So my hope is schools are seeing that and figuring out ways to help support them as this continues.
Right. And that’s – it’s just different now. I mean, how do you, how do you get the experience of climbing a tower crane safely and knowing that, wow, this is what this person looks at all day long when they’re trying to lift these very difficult logistical picks, you gotta be in person to do that. And even being in that cab to ask that individual, you know, what’s tough about your day what’s good about your day, those things we need to get back to where you can be in close quarters and have those experiences.
So if I can flip once again,I think ENR is fantastic. I can remember when I first started in the business, it was the publication that really opened my eyes to everything that we do in construction and engineering and not just what my day to day is. So I’m curious, when you looked at the AEC community and the industry, do you see any trends that are coming out of this that are here to stay? Do you see anything that’s here today that’s going to be gone tomorrow? What is it that – cause you have a wonderful perspective to be able to see all of our constituents in the industry.
You know, there’s a question of how much of the virtual and the accelerated use of the technology will remain. I mean, I don’t think it’s clear yet what will happen? I don’t think things are going to go back exactly to the way it was, even when the restrictions are lifted. I think firms are seeing some benefits in technology and what it can actually do. I heard some CEOs in the call, I mentioned before, who actually were quite surprised that the productivity didn’t fall, that they were able to maintain it. I mean, they’re still not absolutely clear, but I do think that, a lot of the things that are being used may stay on that could have added impacts in terms of space, how much space they’re going to need, is there going to be a central office? How big will it be?
Some CEOs just, aren’t convinced though that a total virtual is what they want to do. It’s not in their culture. They see the same things we’re talking about at the college level. They certainly see it in their own workplaces. So it’s going to probably be something we’re going to have to take another look at just to see in a few months what’s happened and what’s remained. So many unknowns in this moment before us. And things may not change until obviously we get the vaccine. But I think I would like to take a look at how productivity, what kind of a hit has it taken so I think we’ll take another look at. There’s no clear pattern across the industry. I think it just depends on so many things with firms.
We’ve seen, uh, you know, like we mentioned, the productivity of people is pretty amazing. The, wheat separates from the chaff in a situation like this, where all of a sudden you see some folks that are just making amazing strides in their work product and their quantity. Others who may be identified as a boy, they’re taking advantage of the work from home. I tell you it’s shifted our paradigm and made us more progressive in the – many of us have never really left, you know, the field and, and our offices have been back in New York since May in some respects for essential, and then also the office workers here. But it’s amazing to see how we’ve transformed from being a more flexible office environment, but all the while understanding that that element of being close to someone. I think what often is missed is the tangential walked by and someone you see their face and you go, oh, I really want to talk to you about that, but it wasn’t on your to-do list or the ability for people to come together spontaneously, maybe it’s at lunch.
Those things can’t happen, uh, when everyone’s spread out all over the world at home. And we’re finding too that the yearning to get back to our fall and spring conference and some of our leadership development courses that are, we do things that they’re at West Point where we’re actually going through some of the rigors of, of what the Academy has to offer. And we’re looking to get back to that, to put a cohort together and have some training and have some leadership development that is extremely difficult to do. Although we did have some seminars online, it’s different when you’re doing a ropes course and then, uh, an hour and a half later, you’re talking about the intricacies of BIM and how to better develop it for our clients and our owners. And so, I think there’s the good and the bad. And maybe when we’re done with this, we take the good of the flexibility, the appreciation for, Hey, people can be good, hard workers if they’re not in the office five days a week, and it could possibly have the silver lining that improves morale. And it improves our comradery where we get the best of both worlds, something I’m, I’m hoping to take out of this.
Yeah, I think the big thing will be, how do you replace networking is such a key part of this industry. Um, that’s how you get business. That’s how you keep business. I mean, this affected us this year with our Award of Excellence, which went online. By and large, it’s a question of, will there be something missing? Will it hurt firms in, in business development and other things to not have that?
Certainly makes it difficult. It makes it difficult. I mean, they did open the golf courses up, which are about as distant as you can get. Finally, I’m curious about you and ENR and the publishing industry. Hopefully 1) you’re still remaining safe and distant where you need to be, but how’s it affected you personally and your industry?
I mean, luckily a lot has shifted to online in terms of, our web delivery of news and the events. As I mentioned, we’re trying out new things, seeing if it works, learning a lot from this, whether or not any particular way is better, if there’s a good interaction and you have to count in the technical glitches. A lot of the staff – I am in the office today. Um, but generally a lot of my colleagues have been working at home. It depends on where they are. We’re managing, but I think with web delivery becoming a bigger part of our operation, we’ll still be able to deliver the content. I think that’s probably the same for a lot of other publications. Other delivery mechanisms, webinar events are really becoming a bigger thing. And in our events webinars, I’ve done, I’ve found the engagement was huge.
I had bigger numbers on some of my webinars last June – April and June than I ever had on topics that normally wouldn’t attract a huge audience, but they did. So I think there’s an eagerness perhaps. So it’ll be interesting to watch what new approaches firms adapt and how well it works and whether it does the jobs. And then we’ll have to see just whether our miracle vaccine will be available soon and maybe we’ll get to see each other again, uh, hope for the best. So it’s been an interesting and very enlightening, amazing to watch the industry still doing its job. I mean, they haven’t missed a beat. Many, many of the firms are figuring out new ways to do things and we can barely keep up.
Well, it was absolutely wonderful to connect with you again, it was, it was great to spend some time and I look forward to that cup of coffee or buying you a meal someday when it’s a little bit easier to connect in person. So thank you.
Okay. Thank you very much for inviting me and let me share this and, and we’ll keep in touch.
Thanks for listening to STO Building Conversations. For more episodes like this, you can find our podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or the Structure Tone website.