Behind the Build: Interview with Maggie Farrell, Diversity & HR Manager at S. M. Wilson & Co.

Fact: Representation matters, and it greatly affects your employee recruitment and retention. This is why diversity and inclusion programs are vital to building a solid workforce in your construction firm.

Multiple studies have shown that diverse teams are more innovative and perform better. A study by Boston Consulting Group found that firms led by diverse management teams see higher revenues. Additionally, research by McKinsey found that companies with strong gender and ethnic diversity are more likely to financially outperform their peers by 25% and 36%, respectively.

For these reasons (and so much more), construction businesses must focus on Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) and ensure that every employee feels included and represented.

Maggie Farrell, Diversity & HR Manager at S. M. Wilson & Co., shares valuable insights and examples of how companies can improve their initiatives. A social worker by trade, Maggie does an exceptional job leading S. M. Wilson's diversity programs and empowering youth to consider careers in construction.

We had a great conversation with Maggie about the various efforts she and her team are implementing at S. M. Wilson. Dive into our discussion below.

Tell me a little bit about S. M. Wilson and what you specialize in.

S. M. Wilson & Co. is a full-service construction management, design/build, and general contracting firm. We are headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri with an office in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, and one in Edwardsville, Illinois. S. M. Wilson was founded in 1921, so we recently celebrated 100 years in business, which is a fantastic accomplishment for us.

One thing that sets us apart is our dedication to going Beyond the Build, as well as above and beyond our client expectations by putting people first.

Our areas of expertise are education, retail, healthcare, and commercial projects. Right now, we're really busy in the PreK-12 market. We were recognized recently by Building Design+Construction's 2022 Giants 400 Report as a top K-12 CM firm for 2022.

A lot of the PreK-12 work we manage is regional and we have some large projects going on currently. One of the things that I love about my job is being able to coordinate and assist our teams with implementing our SKILLED® program, which centers around construction career education.

This initiative was launched in 2019 to “inspire the future of construction” by putting programs in place where we can involve students while we're building for their district. That could mean career presentations, facilitating STEAM activities, or giving tours to students, staff, and the community. That way, people can be involved in what's happening in their district and learn more about the different types of careers in the construction industry.

Walk us through your career and what led you to become Diversity & HR Manager.

I'm a social worker by trade and have a master's in social work from St. Louis University. I started my career working in nonprofit organizations and government.

And just through my professional network and some of the positions I held, I had an opportunity to join S. M. Wilson. In fact, I recently celebrated my five-year anniversary with the company.

My responsibilities include leading the firm's diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts and collaborating with our team, trade partners, clients, and accrediting agencies to achieve project participation goals which includes monitoring supplier diversity and workforce inclusion hours.

In addition, I implement community engagement initiatives, including SKILLED and #SMWill. I’ve already shared a bit about SKILLED. Coordinating our company’s corporate giving program, #SMWill allows me to stay connected to my roots in nonprofits. We have #SMWill Serve, which gives employees one day a year to volunteer within the community on company time. We use it as a team-building activity too, engaging different departments and getting folks out—whether it's working in a warehouse, doing landscaping, or helping with community cleanup.

In my experience, moving from social work into people operations makes a lot of sense. I would encourage more corporations to consider how or where they could add social workers to their team because we bring a unique perspective about people, relationships, and the community.

I'm proud of our commitment to going Beyond the Build through service and investing in organizations supporting the education of children and youth.

Representation is critical to building a more inclusive industry. When was the first time you saw yourself represented in the construction industry, and what impact did that have on you?

I saw myself represented right away at S. M. Wilson. The company has been very intentional over the past few years, and we've consistently had around 25% women at the firm. Our President is a woman. The executive team is 43% female. And we're also making efforts to increase the percentage of women in operations, which is currently around 15%.

Two years in a row, the company has been named an Employment Scorecard Honoree by the Women's Foundation of Greater St. Louis. This organization showcases employers that demonstrate a strong commitment to women in the workplace.

So that's been amazing to see. It's rewarding to see opportunities for myself here and look at other women who have worked at this company for a long time and have been able to grow and develop their careers.

I recognize and appreciate that this is a unique experience in the construction industry, where only 11% of the overall workforce is women and women in trades make up a mere 3-4%.

In the St. Louis region, we are fortunate to have a solid NAWIC (National Association of Women in Construction) chapter as well as MO Women in Trades or MOWIT. These groups are focused on expanding opportunities for women to enter and succeed in apprenticeships and careers in the construction and building trades.

What have been some of the most encouraging steps and changes you've seen for DEI in the construction industry over the last few years?

I'm encouraged by the innovation, resource sharing, and collaboration. There is an incredible network—both locally and nationally—thanks to companies like Autodesk and organizations such as the AGC of America, that we can lean on and lean in with.

Since taking on this role, I have been supported by my fellow DEI professionals. Only by working together will we be able to make lasting changes in the industry and for the communities where we live, work, heal, learn and play.

St. Louis has a local organization, the Construction Forum, focused on enacting systemic change. They understand the systems and structures in place that have intentionally and historically excluded some groups and people from equitable opportunities to thrive in this industry.

There's a concerted effort to convene industry partners, community organizations, and other stakeholders with a vested interest in building tomorrow’s construction workforce. With so much effort and many resources across the industry focused on recruiting folks to skilled trades, we must ensure people are welcomed into work environments that are safe and inclusive.

Where are the biggest growth opportunities right now for DEI in construction?

For us to make impactful and lasting change, we need to have diversity at our executive and leadership levels. It's crucial to include diverse perspectives, to value and affirm the experiences of people and gain input from those directly impacted by decisions.

The construction industry is exciting and nuanced but we can't continue operating the same way and expect different results. To implement positive changes, we must listen and respond to people within the industry.

I'm grateful to be learning from women and people of color who have generously shared their success stories and pain points. They are helping us think differently about how contracts and work are executed. Change won't happen overnight, but the more inclusive our conversations are, the more innovative we will be.

What are some of the most important and actionable steps that firms and business leaders can take to improve diversity and inclusion holistically at their companies?

There's still a lot of work for us to do around retaining women, people of color, and LGBTQ folks in our industry, particularly in the skilled trades. We still see harassment and discrimination happening in overt ways and through micro-aggressions.

The good news is there's plenty of information and resources out there and available to us that can challenge us and help us grow.

As Maya Angelou once said, "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better."

And although we're always learning, we do know better and can do better but we must be willing to speak up—whether that's sharing information, challenging racist, sexist, or homophobic remarks from a coworker, or putting new policies in place that create more inclusive work environments and equitable opportunities for everyone.

The more we recognize, celebrate, and embrace our diversity, the better off we will be.

Kelsee Campbell

As a Senior Customer Advocacy Program Manager at Autodesk, Kelsee has the privilege of working with Autodesk customers to champion their stories on the Digital Builder Blog. Kelsee strives to create an engaging experience that amplifies customer perspectives, fostering a sense of community and connection.