Attracting and retaining women in the AEC Industry | ElevateHER

By Shibani Bisson, Sr. Project Manager, WSB

In honor of International Women’s Day Shibani Bisson, Associate and Senior Project Manager on WSB’s municipal team, reflects on her experience working towards a more inclusive AEC Industry through the Zweig Group’s ElevateHER program.

The AEC industry statistically lacks females, but we are fortunate that WSB goes beyond “checking the box” when it comes to creating programs and initiatives to promote diversity in the industry.

Over the past year, I became more committed to elevating women within the AEC Industry. In 2020, I was honored to be selected for the Zweig Group’s inaugural ElevateHER cohort group. The cohort group included 26 women and men across the country working together to address recruitment and retention of women working in the AEC Industry.

What drew me to apply to this program was a staggering statistic identified in a recent Zweig survey of AEC firms – that 100% of women surveyed considered leaving the AEC industry. This stat, along with other staggering statistics about the number of females entering the industry and then leaving, helped form the foundation for ElevateHER. Jamie Claire Kiser, Principal of Zweig Group and creator of ElevateHER said, “The goal is not to check the box but make a cultural change that changes the shape, color and outline of the “boxes” themselves with a sweeping paradigm shift in how we understand the potential of our teams.”

My cohort group’s initial goal was to address and mitigate biases and stomp stereotypes in the industry. This was a big issue to tackle. During our ElevateHER kickoff meeting, I kept thinking back to how I felt being an engineer in this industry, the stories I heard from the cohort and how at times, we felt like we did not belong. These thoughts eventually spurred what would later be our #SheBelongsHere campaign to reinforce that women belong in the AEC industry.

Our research identified that because of established traditional female roles, society often does not associate or expect women to be engineers, hold positions in construction or leadership. It’s not necessarily that our employers, co-workers or clients make us feel that way, but it’s the unconscious bias and expectations of the traditional female role. These biases and stereotypes are improving, and we are making progress with diversity initiatives in the industry, but the statistics of the number of women entering the AEC industry is still not improving and we wanted to better understand why.

From our research, there is a leaky pipeline in the industry where girls interested in STEM are passively falling out of STEM because of biases and self-image. Confidence levels in girls typically starts dropping at the 4th grade level. We knew this was a narrative that needed to change and there were actions we could take to help open the world of STEM to girls and women. One other finding from our research was that if females persisted in STEM at the same rate as males starting in Calculus I, the number of women entering the STEM workforce would increase by 75%.

To provide the most impact, we needed to start changing that visual with school aged girls and boys. Our message was, “We need to see it to be it!” We developed two campaign messages, #SheBelongsHere and #GirlsCanBuildTheWorld, that illustrate to girls that someone who looks just like them belongs in AEC careers to help shift the narrative. The materials created included two YouTube videos and educational materials for students.

Although there is still a lot of work to do, it feels good to take action and to support women within the AEC industry and our future female engineers. The ElevateHER experience was and continues to empower me and was the highlight of my 2020! I’m thankful that WSB was supportive of my involvement with ElevateHER and of this initiative. Our commitment to diversity and inclusion at WSB is something I’m proud to be part of. 

Learn more about the output of 2020’s ElevateHER cohort here.

Shibani has over 20 years of experience as a municipal engineer for several communities. As a City Engineer, Shibani’s role is to oversee project delivery, provide quality assurance and quality control reviews and be a liaison between the City Council, City staff and the WSB project team. Her experience working in the public sector makes her particularly well-equipped to provide project management, quality control and a liaison to City Councils for municipal improvement projects with impacts to local infrastructure.

[email protected] | 763.287.7162

The top 5 legislative issues to pay attention to this session

Bart Fischer, Senior Public Administrator, WSB & Gary Carlson, Intergovernmental Relations Director, League of Minnesota Cities (LMC)

The Minnesota Legislative Session is well underway and as usual, there is a lot of ground to cover. I recently spoke with Gary Carlson, Intergovernmental Relationship Director at LMC, to discuss the current session and the top issues communities should be paying attention to.

BF: Thanks for taking the time out of what I imagine is a busy schedule right now to dive into this topic with me, Gary. There are many ideas being discussed right now at the Capital, but what are some of the most current issues communities should be paying attention to?

GC: This is an exciting and busy session and as you know, the League works on a variety of issues, but I think there are a few topics that should be front of mind for both cities, counties and even private developers. Let’s first discuss the status of the state budget.

BF: Great! A new budget forecast was released recently. What are the takeaways?

GC: It was a relatively positive forecast. The state’s projected outlook went from a deficit to a positive budgetary balance meaning the state will have some money available for projects, although the bulk of the improvement is considered to be one-time resources, which raises concerns about long-term spending commitments. However, one-time resources increase the chances of a bonding bill, which is positive for our communities as it relates to funding sources for capital projects.

BF: That’s good news, especially with the uncertainty over the past year caused by the pandemic. What else should we be paying attention to?

GC: Good transition – the American Rescue Plan Act was just approved by the Senate and the House. This $1.9 trillion stimulus package means a lot of funding for Minnesota that can be used for a wide array for purposes. Minnesota is expected to receive approximately $4.8 billion total. Of that $4.8 billion, the state will receive $2.6 billion, and cities and counties will each receive a little more than $1 billion. It appears this funding will be fairly flexible, and communities should start thinking about any one-time improvements or projects that can be completed using this funding.

BF: That certainly could have a large effect on our communities. Anything at a more local level occurring?

GC: Yes, sales tax authority. Currently, there are 22 cities and counties seeking local sales tax authority. These are being proposed for projects ranging from libraries, road infrastructure, ice arena upgrades, public safety facilities, etc.  This is a growing trend, and more and more cities are looking for a dedicated sales tax to fund capital projects that they feel have significance in their communities.

BF: Yes, it seems more communities are taking that approach in recent years. I’ve heard some talk surrounding the sales tax exemption process. Can you speak to what’s happening there?

GC: The sales tax exemption process for local government projects has been a focus for nearly six years. Most cities and counties are forgoing the sales tax exemption process when working with a contractor for a local project because of its cumbersome nature. It also can be financially risky to pre-purchase materials, etc. We have a bill in to do a general simplification of the process. This is really important and could save cities and counties a lot of money. The legislature is considering a general law to streamline the process however, in the past several years, they have opted to only grant project-specific exemptions. I would encourage cities to put a request in for this and watch how things develop at the capital in the next year. If we’re not successful in securing a general law change, cities should consider mounting an effort to work with their legislators to position those bills.

BF: Any high-level takeaways from the pandemic or lasting effects communities should be prepared for?

GC: The housing market is crazy and that is great news – it means a larger tax base, but there is a countervailing force creating significant uncertainty for retail and business properties and it is unclear just how deep the long-term effects of the pandemic will be on that sector of the tax base. There are conversations occurring that the effects of the pandemic will hit communities in 2022 as more commercial and industrial properties seek an appeal of their property taxes or struggle to continue operations. This is a long-term topic to be thinking about and something to keep in mind as communities plan their budgets in the future.

BF: Thank you, Gary. This is all really great information.  Is there a place we can watch the action unfold and go to for updates?

GC:  The League’s government relations staff provide weekly updates on legislative activity impacting cities. Information can be found at:

Bart Fischer

Bart Fischer has over two decades of experience in public administration. Throughout his tenure, he’s worked in five Minnesota communities as the city or assistant city administrator.  Bart joined our firm in 2019 as a senior public administrator and focuses on lending his public service expertise to our clients.

Gary Carlson

Gary Carlson has 37 years of experience in government affairs. As the Intergovernmental Relations Director at the League of Minnesota Cities, Gary leads the League’s legislative efforts that matter to cities including aid to cities, economic development, employment and human resources, pensions and retirement, public finance, taxes, tax increment financing (TIF) and workers’ compensation.

Getting Started with Tribal Funding

There are many challenges to maintaining a healthy and prosperous tribal community. Tribal leadership is responsible for building, maintaining and improving the infrastructure and services for tribal members on an on-going basis. This can be daunting and overwhelming when the necessary resources are not readily available. The good news is there are a variety of funding sources available to tribal communities, here are the first steps you can take when applying for funding.

1.) Prioritize goals and align with available funding options

In many instances, tribal sovereign nations have developed planning documents such as integrated resources management plans (IRMP), comprehensive plans, housing plans, surface water management plans, economic development plans, cultural preservation plans, and many others. Having clear goals and aligning them with available funding opportunities will position your tribal community for success at acquiring critical funds for initiatives that are most important.

2.) Determine eligibility, eligible expenses, required matches (if any) and maximum/minimum funding amounts

Funding is available from a variety of local, state, federal, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and all have eligibility requirements and allowable expenses. Others may require match (in-kind or cash) and have minimum/maximum funding requests amounts. Understanding these basic requirements is a prudent second step in deciding if pursuing a funding source will be worth the investment of time and how well the grant can support the project. 

3.) Develop partnerships/coalitions

Funding requests can vary greatly based on need and scale of the project or program. For large projects that require a large capital investment or match that may not be available, consider developing partnerships or coalitions with local, state, federal, or NGOs to security necessary funds. This can allow you to leverage multiple funding sources, expertise, volunteers, and support, which in most instances increases your chance obtaining grant funding.

4.) Determine what type of project needs funding

Projects and grant requests may divide into broad categories such as:

  • Education/Outreach
  • Data Collection
  • Implementation
  • Monitoring
  • Planning

Depending on where your community is with planning and datasets, new projects may need to begin as planning projects and include implementation plans. This will help you describe your project and develop a clear workplan to successfully achieve tribe goals. Some funding sources do not support planning or data collection and simply support project implementation, while others are the opposite, only supporting planning and data collection and not implementation. Therefore, addressing points one and two is critical to your application and should be as persuasive as possible to demonstrate that you have a clear set of goals and implementation plan. In some cases, including elements from each of the above categories on applications, or at least addressing them, can improve your application and odds of being granted funds.

5.) Plan for what comes next

Having a clearly defined workplan and accurate cost estimates for your project/program is critical to successfully winning grants. If there are too many expenses exceeding currently available funding, consider phasing your project over time and explain that in your grant application. It is possible to be awarded funding on a multi-phase project that is implemented over a series of years if it follows a clear plan. Be thinking about what comes after completing the workplan. Consider how you will fund and support the project after the grant is completed.  Many times, grant programs can build on themselves; after successfully obtaining one funding source and completing the project, you may unlock additional funding sources to expand the reach of your initial project.

Other things to consider:

Capacity Building- Do you have capacity (staff, equipment, time, etc.) to complete the project and can you use grant funds to build capacity that provides future opportunity?

Data driven- Can you use existing data to support your rationale for the grant funding?  If not, this may be your request as you identify data gaps and request funds top fill those gaps.

Collectible WSB Career Cards

We believe in helping to build the workforce of the future.

WSB recently launched a series of collectible career cards to introduce young boys and girls to the extraordinary world of engineering and STEM career possibilities. Each career card offers a glimpse into the lives of six characters; Edie the Engineer, Sam the Scientist, Sophie the Surveyor, Patrick the Planner, Izzy the Inspector, and Erik the Engineer. Edie and her friends have unique traits and career paths but they all share a common goal that drives them to do their best: The future is ours for the making.

“I am excited to tell you about some of my friends. Years ago, we had big dreams for the future. Our entire team at WSB once started off as curious kids with different interests and skills. We’ve all taken unique journeys, but our paths have led us here – where we work together to build and protect many of the places you visit every day. We’re excited to share our experiences with you and can’t wait to see the path you take. Maybe someday you’ll join us too.” –  Edie, WSB Engineer

Municipal Engineer

What does a Municipal Engineer do?

Brandon Movall, Graduate Engineer, WSB

Creating a livable city space for residents to enjoy is no easy feat.

Civil engineers who dedicate their careers to supporting a specific city or municipality are known as municipal engineers. You may only know of one main city engineer in your community. However, there is likely a team of municipal engineers working behind the scenes to ensure all city operations are running smoothly.

Here are five things that municipal engineers do to support your community.

1. Design

One of the most noticeable things that municipal engineers do is design the public infrastructure in a community. Local streets are designed to get you around town. Public utilities are designed to provide drinking water and indoor restrooms to homes and businesses. Trails are designed for recreational enjoyment. Storm sewer systems are designed to properly manage storm water runoff and prevent flooding. All the above and more are designed by municipal engineers.

2. Review

Developers and residents rely on municipal engineers to review developments within their city. Large-scale developments, usually done by a developer for a residential, commercial or industrial area, take thorough reviewing by municipal engineers to ensure the development is compliant with city rules and regulations and adds value to the community. Similarly, residents with plans to modify their land seek approval from municipal engineers to ensure their design and modifications meet community standards and avoid potential issues for neighbors or future residents.

3. Plan

Municipal engineers are always looking to the future. They develop Capital Improvement Plans (CIPs) to identify the most crucial needs of the city and plan for future projects. These plans typically project 5-10 years into the future. Additionally, municipal engineers work with city planners and regulatory agencies to establish comprehensive plans for the community. Most comprehensive city plans typically project 10-20 years into the future.

4. Budget

Managing a city’s infrastructure budget is an essential part of being a municipal engineer. Cities often operate on a limited budget so they must think carefully about where to allocate their spending. Likewise, municipal engineers assist cities with applying for state, regional, and federal funding.

5. Collaborate

Municipal engineers collaborate with invested stakeholders to improve their communities. Through public engagement and speaking with residents, city officials, regional and state agencies, they gather input and analyze the best course of action to create a viable city that works for everyone.

Brandon Movall is a Graduate Engineer on our municipal team with experience in project design and bringing creative solutions to community problems. Learn more about our civil engineering services and recent community projects.

Hyatt House-Civic on First Groundbreaking

Community leaders and local residents gathered in downtown Rochester yesterday to break ground on the Hyatt House-Civic on First project. Referred to as the “new gateway to the city”, the $46 million project features a 172-room extended stay hotel.

Formerly the home of the beloved community watering hole, American Legion Post 92, the Hyatt House has a large footprint to fill. The over 30-year-old downtown establishment bid a bittersweet farewell to Civic Center Drive and its loyal patrons, but remained optimistic for future development efforts. The Hyatt House hotel is expected to connect the Rochester community and Mayo Clinic campus and spur economic development growth in the area.

Our Land Development team assisted EKN Development Group, PEG Companies, and HKS as the Planning and Entitlements Lead. We completed the planning and entitlement process, civil engineering, geotechnical, survey, and landscape architecture work. Completion for the Hyatt House project is anticipated for summer 2020.