For centuries, engineers have played a critical role designing the world we live in, harnessing the power of practicality and creativity to better humanity. The importance of this role hasn’t diminished; in fact, it’s only become more pressing as challenges around infrastructure, climate change and global health command increasing attention.
Amidst such complex, changing times, meeting the challenges and opportunities of today – and preparing for a better tomorrow – requires a diverse engineering workforce.
Black & Veatch is proud to celebrate February’s Black History Month, which kicked off February 1 and serves to acknowledge and celebrate the Black American trailblazers, civil rights leaders and advocates for justice and equality who have worked for decades to transform the United States. Throughout the month, Black & Veatch will honor and celebrate the rich and diverse history, culture and achievements of people of African descent around the world.
As we celebrate Black History Month, we recognize the indelible contributions of Black engineers as we look beyond imagining the future world and instead, focus on increasing the diversity of those who will build it.
Leveling the Playing Field
Historically, minorities were openly discouraged or prevented from pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). For those who broke through the systemic barriers and bias, their trail-blazing achievements in health care, business, academia and technology rarely received recognition.
But Black engineers have made significant contributions to industrial and technological progress in the U.S. – Elijah McCoy, Otis Boykin, James West, George Carruthers, Jerry Lawson, Shirley Jackson, Mae Jemison and so many others overcame racial barriers and systemic bias to forge new paths in academia, business, healthcare and technology.
Today, Black engineers remain chronically underrepresented as just 4.3 percent of the entire U.S. engineering workforce, according to the National Science Foundation.
Black & Veatch recognizes it’s time to change that. It cannot be overstated how critically important it is to expand diversity throughout the field of engineering. Equitable collaboration yields better results, both in engineering and across society. An inclusive and diverse workplace is an incubator for creative and innovative thinking.
As a global leader in critical human infrastructure solutions, the company plans to unveil its “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DE&I) Strategy” later this month, advancing its commitment to racial and ethnic diversity and other DE&I goals.
Throughout Black History Month, the company is also hosting virtual events celebrating achievements of the Black community and educating about racial challenges and the African diaspora. This includes recognizing the stories and contributions of our Black professionals, such as Sedric Scott, project manager with our telecommunications business, and Kaeisha Akinmoladun, engineer with our water business.
Two Engineers: Stories of Rising Above
Always intrigued by the innerworkings of things, Scott’s embrace of solutions dates to his boyhood, working with his grandfather to fix and maintain cars, trucks, lawnmowers, tractors – “anything with an engine.” By his college years, “I realized my curiosity for how things fit together and worked is what inspired me to go into engineering.”
“As a kid I was always intrigued by how things worked,” he said. “It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized that my curiosity for how things fit together and worked is what inspired me to go into engineering.”
Akinmoladun’s engineering intrigue also was fed early, courtesy of a mother who “forced her to try new things.”
“My mom forced me to take a Project Lead the Way course and this was the first introduction I had to STEM outside of the traditional math and science courses,” Akinmoladun said. Although “the idea of working as an ‘engineer’ did not sound fun,” she soon discovered that engineering provided creative challenges that she enjoyed and was good at.
“The main thing that set my heart and life on the path of engineering is that engineering allowed me to directly impact and improve people’s lives,” she recalls.
But barriers still exist when it comes to furthering diversity in engineering.
For Scott, inner-city schooling didn’t expose him to the STEM concepts that his college peers received, forcing him to overcome that learning gap in his early years of higher education.
“Being from an inner-city school, I was not initially exposed to the STEM concepts that my college classmates received in high school,” Scott said. “Like most kids from inner cities, I had to overcome a learning curve or gap during my first few years of college.”
Akinmoladun considers the lack of engineering and university diversity “still painfully obvious,” fanning the need for engineering firms to invest in minority students’ success.
“I do not think I would be an engineer without the support of these type of programs” that provide emotional and academic support, she said. “These programs provided emotional and academic support to help bridge the gap diverse students often realize when starting their college career.”
Both engineers believe exposure to engineering and STEM concepts should begin when children are young, ideally in the elementary school setting, and continue throughout their lives.
This is particularly important for children in urban communities, Scott said. “In elementary school we used to have career day visits from the local fireman, police officer, doctor, etc.,” he said. “But engineers are rarely seen at elementary schools, especially in urban communities. Elementary school is where seeds are planted, so engineering companies should do a better job of planting seeds into kids’ minds about the possibilities of a career in engineering.”
Akinmoladun sees it as an incremental approach, noting, “Increasing diversity in engineering stems from the introduction and involvement of STEM at four main stages of people’s lives.”
As such, she calls for introducing STEM to elementary schoolers; amplifying that in high school; and supporting minority students throughout university and higher education. This support should then carry through to the workplace by creating a diverse, equitable and inclusive work environment.
Along the way, she suggested that would-be engineers seek out higher education that’s affordable and not a pathway to student debt, “remain true to who you are, achieve your goals because you want to, and know that you can do this even if you feel like you can’t.”
Scott’s advice: Stay curious, and welcome challenges.
“I’ve been able to grow my career by being open to new opportunities and experiences,” he said.
Scott’s “blessing” was being introduced to Black & Veatch during his college freshman year when, as a temporary Xerox employee, he helped install copiers in the engineering company’s Kansas City offices.
“That opportunity showed me the BV culture, and I was able to talk with several BV professionals about the type of work and projects they worked on,” he said.
Scott learned about the company’s culture and projects as he changed his major from business to engineering and put Black & Veatch atop his list of desired employers.
Years later, as a full-time Black & Veatch employee, he credits his professional growth and “the potential for opportunities” among the cornerstones of why he’s still there.
Akinmoladun says Black & Veatch has empowered her “can-do” spirit and has helped nurture and inspire tomorrow’s engineers while building upon its diversity and inclusion.
“I chose Black & Veatch because they strive to make a difference and they gave me a chance to show that I can, too,” she said. “I choose to stay at Black & Veatch because we are making a difference.”
“Black & Veatch acknowledges the gap in diversity, and they are making active changes to increase diversity and inclusion within the company and support opportunities for other children to be introduced to STEM.”
“I am challenged and inspired by the work we do,” she said, “and I feel heard.”