Incorporated in 1968 with 31 member firms, ACEC Virginia now represents approximately 120 firms with 5,800 employees.
Since 2003, the Member Organization has been led by President Nancy Israel, who is only the third person to hold the position. ACEC Virginia is led by a board of directors, including Eric Burke, chair (2021-2022) and national director; Chadd Yeatts, chair-elect; and Michael Matthews, current chair of the board of directors.
“Maybe we’ll bring in a hostage negotiator,” says Nancy Israel, ACEC Virginia’s president. Israel isn’t worried she’s about to face a dire situation. She is referring to a keynote speaker for the AEC Conference that ACEC Virginia is planning for April 25-26, 2023.
“It might be a little out of the box, but who better to talk about negotiating? I find that engineers like things that make them think. It’s one of the things I’ve always loved about working with them,” she says.
Israel has been leading ACEC Virginia since 2003, helping to guide the organization through the Great Recession and smaller national fiscal crises, as well as the recent COVID-19 pandemic and legislative challenges on issues ranging from Qualifications-Based Selection (QBS) to indemnification to term contracts to pay-if-paid. But the biggest challenge facing engineers in Virginia—and the overall engineering industry—is that there just aren’t enough of them. “It’s workforce, workforce, workforce,” she says.
ACEC Virginia’s education committee, one of the organization’s 12 volunteer committees, is one of the most important because its mission is vital to answering questions about the labor shortage.
The U.S. has only about 70,000 engineering graduates per year, says Michael Matthews, chair of ACEC Virginia’s board of directors and CEO and president of The Structures Group, a consulting engineering company with a specialty in structural design and forensic analysis. “China has approximately 600,000 engineers and India 350,000,” he notes. “Seventy thousand just isn’t going to cut it. All the engineering firms are feeling it. If we intend to build our businesses, we must create a bigger pipeline.”
ACEC Virginia’s board of directors and committee chairs meet periodically with the deans of Virginia engineering schools to learn about curricula, “to collaborate on how to bolster their offerings to meet what we need as employers,” Matthews says. “We also encourage regional VPs to take an interest in promoting science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in their own region.”
“All the engineering firms are feeling it. If we intend to build our businesses, we must create a bigger pipeline.”
MICHAEL MATTHEWSCHAIRACEC VIRGINIA BOARD OF DIRECTORSCEO AND PRESIDENTTHE STRUCTURES GROUP
In his firm, Matthews champions STEM programs for fifth through seventh grade students. “During Engineers Week in February, my firm will present engineering workshops to the STEM programs within the local middle schools,” Matthews says. “We also participate in the Greater Richmond Council of Teachers of Mathematics, where middle schoolers are brought to the University of Richmond for a series of 50-minute workshops to illustrate aspects of engineering and get them excited about building projects.” Additionally during Engineers Week, his firm rents a theater in the local cinema for a day to show “Dream Big: Engineering Our World,” a 40-minute documentary narrated by Jeff Bridges, to help inspire or ignite the students’ interest in engineering.
ACEC Virginia also keeps up with the education pipeline of working engineers through its NextGen committee, which uses networking events to help newer professionals engage with the organization and understand its importance to their careers, and in developing talent through its Emerging Leaders Institute and Enhanced Leadership Program.
Janet Webster, the first female president of ACEC Virginia (June 2020–June 2021), went through the Emerging Leaders program in 2012. A principal at Clark Nexsen, she says the year-long program was one of the most impactful leadership learning opportunities she has ever experienced. Attendees learned how to be a leader in a firm, which included sessions on soft skills and human resources, as well as contracts and finance issues.
“I find that engineers like things that make them think. It’s one of the things I’ve always loved about working with them.”
NANCY ISRAELPRESIDENTACEC VIRGINIA
“Through the training program, I recognized the importance of giving back to the engineering community. I got on the education committee and was chairing it soon after. Then I was asked to join the board four years ago,” Webster says.
As a woman in the industry, she is keenly aware of issues facing underrepresented talent. During her tenure as president, she started a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEI&B) group. “It started as a women’s group,” she says, “but during my presidency there was a lot of unrest in the world, and it became clear the group needed to be about more than just women in STEM careers.”
The unit began conducting Zoom roundtables and reached out to member firms to gather information on how those firms were working on diversity issues. “We were overwhelmingly surprised by the participation of our membership. They volunteered to help and provide the group with content,” Webster says.
“We were overwhelmingly surprised by the participation of our membership. They volunteered to help and provide the group with content.”
JANET WEBSTERPAST PRESIDENTACEC VIRGINIAPRINCIPALCLARK NEXSEN
The DEI&B group worked with the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities and Richard Coughlan, faculty director of executive education at the University of Richmond’s Robins School of Business, to create content that could be shared at the annual conference. “They offered professional content that was both inspirational and HR-oriented,” she says.
While the pandemic slowed things down for everyone, the legislative engine never stops. Israel says she spends the first two weeks of January each year reading thousands of bills headed for the state’s General Assembly to find those that will impact the engineering industry. “I might see one that’s environmental or energy related—is there something in it we should be concerned about? Then I work with the subject experts in that area to come up with revised language,” says Israel, who long ago hired a lobbyist to work with the organization. She explains that Virginia has the shortest legislative session in the United States. “Our long session is 60 days, and our short session is only 45 days. The reality is that we have to have it all together before the sessions. If there is conflict over a bill during the session, it is tabled until the next year.”
Israel prides herself on working collaboratively with other organizations, such as the American Institute of Architects, the Associated General Contractors of America, and state agencies, and she has developed solid working relationships with legislators. This effort helps her determine the concerns and possible conflicts to make sure any needed opposition to a bill impacting ACEC Virginia members is prepared before the session begins.
One recent example was the effort to change the language in a bill covering term contracts. “The law had been changed, modified, and changed again, until we literally had a full-page spreadsheet of who was allowed how much money for how long and all these different clarifications. It was crazy to try to keep up with. So we introduced a bill that basically leveled the playing field,” Israel says.
It took two years to work through the issues with all the stakeholders. ACEC Virginia defined the issue and industry needs with its lobbyist, who created a spreadsheet of all the different ways the term contracts were available to state and local governments. ACEC Virginia talked with the state agencies affected and met with stakeholders, such as the Virginia Association of Counties, the Virginia Municipal League, and the Virginia Association of Governmental Purchasing. Ultimately, ACEC Virginia prevailed, and the new ruling took effect July 1, 2022. “It was a good win, something important to the industry,” Israel says.
She’s not quite sure what the next big legislative battles will be, but she believes they’ll likely have to do with environmental issues or energy. “There’s a lot of churn, and we don’t know what’s going to come up. Not everyone tells us what they’re going to do. But there’s never a dull moment.”
Stacey Freed is a writer based in Pittsford, New York, who has contributed to This Old House, Professional Builder, and USA Today.