Across the country, the construction industry needs workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 375,000 open construction positions in July 2022, an increase of 11.3% from the previous year. Companies like PCL Construction are working to address this critical shortage by introducing younger generations to careers in the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry. The ACE Mentor Program of America is the perfect partner to pair students curious about construction with passionate industry experts, from skilled trades to project management to build a community based on education and teamwork.
Founded in 1994, ACE is a free, award-winning afterschool program designed to attract high school students to careers in the AEC industry, including skilled trades. With more than 75 affiliates (chapters) in 38 states and in Canada, ACE helps over 10,000 students each year from approximately 1,450 high schools through education and financial support. In the 2021-22 school year, over 800 students received nearly $3 million in scholarships to pursue education in architecture, engineering and construction disciplines.
When Thai Nguyen, who oversees PCL’s office in Maui, entered high school he didn’t know which career path to choose. Nguyen had diverse interests and was unsure about what direction to go in. He was interested in becoming an optometrist, a social worker, an engineer or even an astronaut. By chance, he joined ACE in his senior year, and everything fell into place. “I decided to get involved in ACE as a student because I was so fascinated with buildings and construction as a whole, and it wasn’t long until I realized how amazing the mentors were,” Nguyen says.
Nguyen became part of the 2002 inaugural ACE Mentor class at John Marshall High School in Los Angeles and has since had a successful career in construction. Nguyen entered the construction management program at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with the aid of an ACE scholarship. He continued to be involved through college by talking to students at his alma mater about the ACE Mentor Program and how it helped him to find his path, eventually returning in 2008 as a mentor for ACE. “I continue to stay involved as a mentor, because I want to give back to the program that has done so much for me and is the only reason I’m in the construction industry today,” Nguyen says.
Since his initial involvement with ACE 20 years ago, Nguyen has grown his depth of knowledge, which he started building on as an intern in the industry. He started with PCL more than 14 years ago as a field engineer, has overseen the Special Projects division in California and currently oversees all aspects of the business in Nordic PCL’s Maui office.
In 2013, Nguyen received the national ACE Exemplary Mentor Award for his efforts, and in 2015, he was awarded the ACE Mentor of the Year award in Los Angeles for construction. In 2016, he was named as a Top 20 under 40 by Engineering News Record. His name hangs on the wall near the training room at John Marshall High School, inspiring those who follow in his footsteps. He served on the ACE L.A. Board of Directors from 2015 to 2020 holding the position of vice chairman prior to his move to Hawaii. Nguyen continues his support for ACE Mentor Program while growing his career in Hawaii.
For more than a decade, Mark Schneider has been passionate about investing in the success of local Southern California students. Through his involvement in various programs, he has helped high school and college students turn their interests into careers. Schneider, operations manager overseeing PCL’s San Diego and Orange County projects, has been an active member of the Los Angeles Chapter of the ACE Mentor Program since 2008 and served as a mentor for more than a decade before joining the board of directors in 2020. His love of teaching those around him was a natural fit for ACE. He also serves on the ACE Alumni Committee, where he places former ACE students with internships.
Schneider began his career at PCL as a field engineer in 2006 and his drive to mentor and coach helped him rise quickly to operations manager. “I just love to teach,” Schneider says, “I find the act of bringing people up with me fulfilling.” Schneider has worked with several students through the ACE Mentor Program, and one current PCL employee stands out as a top student: Abegayle De Castro, who was an ACE Mentor student and a mentee of Schneider’s from 2013 until 2016.
“De Castro stood out right away,” Schneider says. “Her engagement and commitment to the program as a high school student were admirable, and her approach and personality were mature beyond her years. When it came time for her to find an internship, I knew she would be a great fit at PCL.”
In 2019, De Castro accepted an internship with PCL and was later offered a full-time position as a field engineer.
“Schneider was one of my mentors when I participated in the ACE program as a high school student, and his influence was instrumental in my career choice and trajectory,” De Castro says. “In hindsight, I have an even deeper appreciation for the time and effort he invested in us students. He was an exceptional mentor and remains passionate about creating a pipeline for new talent. He has been there for every step of my career – mentee, intern and early career engineer – and I serve as a testimony to his influence.”
“Being able to watch De Castro find success has been fulfilling,” Schneider says. “It did not take long for her to begin giving back to the ACE program as a mentor – the ultimate win-win situation.”
The ACE Mentorship Program not only builds knowledge to help students find their path to success but paves the road to building relationships with future colleagues and partners.
Every year, ACE hosts a national competition that models an actual design team. Students are guided through a mock design project by their architect, engineer, construction management and tradesperson mentors.
Several years ago, Cathy Orquiola, regional vice president, witnessed one of these competitions as a member of the national board for ACE mentors. “To see these young teams come together and present their work was phenomenal. They were so impressive in their detail and their insight into every aspect of the project. It really ignited my passion for people growth,” Orquiola muses.
Orquiola’s involvement with ACE started in 2011. She was the catalyst to connect her colleagues in her area to the ACE Mentor Program. In her role at PCL, she jumped at the chance to be involved on the national board.
The ACE Mentor Program increases diversity in the workplace, as ACE students are more diverse and often come from more challenging backgrounds than typical high school students. Among ACE students, the percentage of female and minority students who are planning architecture, engineering and construction majors is double the percentage among college freshmen nationwide.
Investing in the future of construction is one of Orquiola’s passions, and she has always been driven by the desire to help others grow in their careers. “I like seeing the light bulb and the vision take off in young people who perhaps would never even consider construction as a career path, especially young women,” Orquiola says. The number of female students involved in the program has been increasing consistently over the last eight years, most recently reaching 41%. “Being able to educate on the many opportunities available in our field is priceless and needed. We tell our children to reach for the stars, and when their eyes are open to the many possibilities, their reach is endless.”
ACE mentors sit in PCL offices across the U.S. as mentors, volunteers or facilitators. While the drive to help others and see the ACE teens succeed carries value for everyone involved, PCL’s mentors and volunteers also experienced a growth in their own skillsets. Learning how to engage students through education and guidance translates to better communication skills. Additionally, working with a diverse audience and understanding how to land a message helps enhance relationships with colleagues, partners and clients.
Reach out to a local chapter to get involved with the ACE Mentor Program at acementor.org.