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Building diversity in AECO starts with attracting and retaining global talent

International workers gather at a meeting table.
Hiring from a pool of the best international talent can improve company performance in addition to building a more inclusive workplace.
  • Hiring the best talent means hiring and including the best talent from anywhere in the world.
  • While technical skills are important, global talent also needs to develop other skills, such as effective communication and networking.
  • Firms can support global talent by building a culture of support, providing resources to help navigate the visa process, and offering mentoring and networking opportunities.

Nearly one in seven architects, engineers, and related workers are immigrants to the United States, according to the New American Economy’s analysis of data from the American Community Survey. The rate is even higher in the construction industry, with immigrants accounting for almost one-quarter of the workforce.

The need for immigrant workers in architecture, engineering, construction, and operations (AECO) is likely to remain strong in the coming years. The US Bureau of Labor and Statistics projected that between 2022 and 2032, overall employment in architecture and engineering occupations would grow faster than the average of all occupations, with about 188,000 openings each year.

While it’s clear that immigrants have an integral role to play in the AECO industry, hiring from abroad is about more than filling open positions. Attracting the best talent, wherever they come from, creates a more diverse and inclusive workforce that can help companies meet the demands of the future. In fact, expanding recruitment to encompass the entire global talent pool can increase the chances of finding successful candidates. 

However, it’s essential for companies to understand the challenges immigrants face—and to build a work culture that values and utilizes the knowledge and skills of all employees.

Building on diversity

To succeed in a rapidly changing industry, all companies should embrace diversity, including hiring immigrants, who bring with them strong technical skills and unique backgrounds that can help companies achieve the best outcomes. 

For this to work, companies have to move beyond checking a “diversity” box. “Companies that focus on hiring on merit from a diverse pool are really successful, versus companies that only…want to fill a quota,” says Prateek Chitnis, a strategic implementation manager and product specialist at Symetri.

Chitnis earned a Bachelor of Engineering degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Mumbai in India and his master’s at the University of Florida. In his current position, he works with a product development team to beta-test products and conduct training. Chitnis recently spoke at Autodesk University 2023’s BIMigration: Transforming AECO Through Immigration, Diversity, and Technology event, which brought together AECO professionals from several countries and backgrounds to share their journeys and discuss how firms can embrace diversity and support immigrants. Chitnis was joined on the panel by speakers Thesla Collier, Nima Azad, Shir Rustici, and Eve Lin.

During the discussion, panel members highlighted a number of ways that firms can benefit from  proactively recruiting talent from other parts of the world. For example, “a diverse team brings a wide range of ideas and perspectives to the table,” says Azad, BIM/VDC director at AHA Consulting Engineers. “At the end of the day, this contributes to problem-solving.”

Immigrants excel at being adaptable

Immigrants also often display remarkable adaptability and resilience, traits needed throughout the entire immigration process. “Starting from scratch in a new country is not easy,” Azad says. “You have to be flexible, you have to adapt yourself to the new environment.”

This includes wading through the complex US immigration system. “You can have the technical skills and the communication skills,” Chitnis says, “but then you get another hurdle, which is your visa.” Being able to navigate this process, he jokes, makes workers coming from other countries experts in immigration—but it also proves their adaptability.

Starting a career in the US can also be a challenge. Collier, design technology manager at HNTB, says it took about a year for her to find her first job in the country. Collier earned a bachelor’s in architecture from the University of Honduras and has worked in the AECO industry for more than 25 years. In her role, she helps architects and designers elevate their skills and workflows using multiple software platforms.

Two men consult architectural drawings on a construction site.
To cultivate diversity, AECO companies must build a work culture that values all employee skills and perspectives.

Chitnis adds that one of the reasons the job search is so difficult for immigrants is because “we come from other countries and we don’t know a lot of people,” which makes networking more challenging. He says one of his father’s friends, an architect, helped him get his first internship, something for which he is thankful.

Despite that assistance, “I’m always putting in 110% effort,” he says, “because I know there’s someone else out there who might deserve more than me. But I want to show that I’m here and I’m doing it.” 

Collier says this kind of “hustling” carries through in everything immigrants do. “We go that extra mile, not because we want to outshine other people, but because we need to survive.” Azad adds that “it’s very important that we understand and we learn the culture of the country that we live in. Navigating, understanding, and learning these cultural differences is not just a skill, it’s a necessity.”

The challenges of assimilation

AECO professionals who emigrate to the US face many challenges as they build careers, from visa issues to communicating effectively to networking. Immigrants also face cultural challenges, such as understanding the quirks of American pop culture, becoming comfortable with calling a boss by their first name, or adjusting to less extensive public transportation.

Even transitioning to a new system of measurement can be a shock, especially for those in technical industries. “Having studied engineering in the metric system, when I came to the US it’s all in the imperial system, so it was very hard to adjust and learn how to convert those measurements in your head when you’re working,” Chitnis says. However, Collier says understanding both metric and imperial measurement systems comes in handy when collaborating with firms in other countries. 

A diverse group of international workers consult a business plan in an office.
It’s important to recognize that communication styles vary across cultures.

Collier also sees being bilingual as a “blessing,” adding that when she first moved to the United States, she would have been “terrified” to be on stage speaking to a group of people. “But you have to overcome that fear,” she says.

Azad agrees that being able to communicate effectively is essential for immigrants. “Your technical skills are very important, but it’s not enough,” he says. “We are only as good as we can communicate. If you cannot present, if you cannot sell or showcase your great product or your skills or your ideas, it doesn’t matter, because they won’t be recognized.”

Communication styles vary across cultures, just as management styles and problem-solving methods do. For example, Azad has found that direct and open communication is highly valued in the US. As a result, “I started to be proactive in asking questions, or sharing my ideas, or initiating discussions with my colleagues.”

Lin, a strategic consultant and sustainability advocate at Symetri, says in her culture, it is respectful to wait for another person to finish speaking before chiming in. As a result, she has to remind herself to speak up, sharing her opinions in work situations. However, “my culture also gives me a way of communication which is more polite, more indirect,” she says, which is useful when working on teams or resolving conflicts.

How firms can help global talent thrive

Hiring the best talent means seeking them out from anywhere in the world. But to successfully integrate immigrants into the workplace and help them thrive, firms need to “accept and respect the cultural differences,” emphasizes Azad. In addition, companies should consider other ways to support immigrants. For example, Lin says there are so many “hoops to jump through” during the immigration process that she wishes she had had access to more resources to help her navigate it.

A man of African descent leads a diverse business meeting.
Networking opportunities help new international workers thrive.

Networking and mentoring are other ways to help immigrants thrive. Chitnis’ company did not have a formal mentorship program, but one of his managers has become a mentor for him. “He hears me vent, he teaches me, he guides me in what I should be doing—and it’s been great. Learning from someone is always great.”

Efforts to support immigrants can’t be sporadic; they need to happen company-wide and top-down. “It’s really coming from an organization’s culture, and how the leaders see the value of immigrants,” Lin says. This is not just a note on their website indicating they are a DEI company; they need to “intentionally create those supportive environments.”

About the Author

Shawn Radcliffe is an Ontario, Canada–based freelance journalist and yoga teacher, specializing in writing stories about health, medicine, science, architecture, engineering, and construction, as well as yoga and meditation. Reach him at ShawnRadcliffe.com.

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