Portland office leader for PCS Structural Solutions believes in the legacy of engineering as a community builder.
By Richard Massey
“Engineering can be perceived as stuffy, but when you can share your excitement, your passion is a catalyst,” Heath says. “I’ve had multiple mentees who just recently graduated high school who chose to pursue an AEC path. That is so exciting.”
A CONVERSATION WITH LUKE HEATH.
The Zweig Letter: You are an ACE mentor. Tell us about your involvement in the program, what you are hearing from students, and what needs to be done to attract more young people to architecture, engineering, and construction management?
Luke Heath: I helped start a local chapter a couple of years ago and really enjoy working with the high school students as a mentor. High school students haven’t necessarily pinned down what they want to do, but when you can showcase what you do, it’s a spark.
We’ve found that using technology to create and study a project in the mentoring sessions really has been a driver for dialogue and ideas. They’re already using technology, so Revit, VR goggles, SketchUp, and other engineering programs are relatable and a natural extension of their skills. It helps them understand that our jobs are stimulating and that there is a lot of creation taking place.
I feel that the greatest impact is in sharing why structural engineering is important to me, that it’s a legacy profession that builds community. Engineering can be perceived as stuffy, but when you can share your excitement, your passion is a catalyst. I’ve had multiple mentees who just recently graduated high school who chose to pursue an AEC path. That is so exciting.
TZL: You joined the firm in 2002. In 2017, you became the firm’s leader of the Portland office. You have lived the dream, paying your dues and finding career advancement without having to look elsewhere. How did you do it? Tell us about the journey.
LH: I had identified my love for working for the community early on. I grew up in a really poor, rural community. Through some extraordinary circumstances, I was able to go to college because of the generosity of the small town I lived in. I’ve never forgotten. I live with a sense of gratitude and directed purpose. I want to give back to the community.
In college, I would I pick one thing to work on that would help me get to that dream. At first, it was looking internally, working on my engineering skills, and going to a lot of seminars. Then I needed help with public speaking, so I started going to Toastmasters and reading a lot of books.
I was involved in many activities and organizations outside of the office like Habitat for Humanity, ACE Mentoring Program, local engineering communities, local city council design review boards, etc. These activities were fun and helped me develop some of the leadership skills I needed.
Being a part of a company with values and goals I believe in has really motivated me to have a larger perspective on life and obtain this goal. I never let the walls of work define my ambitions, and PCS never said no. PCS has been very supportive of that dream, both in and out of the office, for which I am very grateful.
TZL: What was the toughest problem you had to solve in the first year of leading the Portland office?
LH: We had to focus on clients who shared the same core values. There are a broad range of potential clients, and it can be tempting to pursue them all, but you want to focus your energies on working with people who share your vision. We put our time and resources into identifying community-led projects in K-12, higher education, and healthcare, and pursued relationships with clients who value collaboration. We have a distinct culture, and we wanted to be a good fit.
TZL: While the Portland location was a natural fit for PCS, the firm did not rush into opening the new office. The firm took pains to make sure there was a unified culture across all its offices, and that the right people were in Portland. What’s the importance of company culture as it relates to job satisfaction, client satisfaction and, ultimately, the bottom line?
LH: Involving staff in these decisions creates a legacy culture for future generations. We knew we could add value to our client service by opening a third office, but a conscious effort was made by leadership to engage junior staff. Vetting a new office opening was a nine-month process. The staff researched markets up and down the West Coast and reported out to the board of directors on their recommendations. Leadership staff commented on their likelihood to move to possible future office locations. Those individuals who were willing to move were involved in office location decisions and the final tenant improvement design.
The bottom line? High client satisfaction is the natural result of knowing why we do what we do, doing it well, and building people within our organization.
TZL: If you were sitting in a classroom with high school students, what would you tell them about the opportunities and lifestyle a career in civil structural engineering can provide?
LH: Structural engineering is a way of thinking about problems. Engineers are meticulous problem solvers, and we’re required to think creatively about solutions. Engineers today work within a highly collaborative work model that can provide a satisfying work life that meshes with your personal goals. There is a high demand for engineers, and the wages are very competitive. An engineer’s salary will provide a good standard of living.
TZL: What should every engineer know about the design-build delivery model?
LH: It’s not a common delivery method, but we’re seeing it more often, particularly in our higher-ed projects. We’re on the leading edge of the first two design-build projects for K-12 in Washington. The biggest thing from a structural engineering standpoint is that the work is often a lot more front loaded. To make the process successful, it takes invested and outspoken stakeholders who are willing to advocate for elements of the design. The ability to be flexible is paramount. You must be able to communicate and understand cost. It’s an opportunity to build trusting relationships. It’s a really fun process and very rewarding.
TZL: The labor crunch appears to be at its peak with no signs of relenting. What are you and your team doing to recruit new talent? How do you retain the talent you already have?
LH: Connecting with undergraduate and graduate students is a priority. We look for opportunities to give presentations at universities and host social events such as breakfast with CalPoly students. We also work with high schoolers through the ACE mentorship program to encourage future talent.
We put a lot of energy into creating a collaborative, positive culture. Growth is managed with culture in mind, and as we grow, we continue to build our teams by providing plenty of opportunities for our teams to have fun together. In addition to great benefits, we find that retention is a natural result of a great fit with our culture. Our average tenure is about 10 years with many over 25 years. It’s a diverse group of talent and provides internal mentorship opportunities.
TZL: You have two engineering degrees from Washington State University. It must have been gratifying to be part of the team on the Elson S. Floyd Cultural Center project, which is on the WSU campus. How did your involvement come about, and what personal rewards did you reap?
LH: We’ve always had great partners in the higher ed market. Our team put forward a project on a design build competition that really matched the vision of the late university president. The Elson S. Floyd Cultural Center is the first building you see on the campus. It’s beautiful. It has an iconic curved roof to match the surrounding Palouse hills. We worked with my old professors throughout the project as they were a part of the advisory committee. I also was able to spend some time as a guest lecturer for a senior design class. It had always been a dream to work on the campus, and this project was a homecoming.
TZL: With technology reducing the time it takes to complete design work, how do you get the AEC industry to start pricing on value instead of hours?
LH: Our tagline is “Connected Teams. Bold Solutions,” and we fully embrace that. Our clients recognize PCS Structural
Solutions as a partner, and they notice that we have internal processes that deliver quality: We internally teach cross-discipline awareness with fire codes, constraints to the architect and general contractor, building type impacts, architectural design, etc. Our culture of always working to help the owner and the entire project team succeed demonstrates value, and our clients recognize that value over any pricing/hours exercise.
TZL: Your firm had an established relationship with Portland clients before opening an office there. But it seems that marketing and business development would still be important in terms of creating awareness among potential new clients. What steps did you take to make sure people knew you were in town and that the pipeline was being fed?
LH: Having a solid, positive PCS brand in the AEC market was foundational. We learned an important lesson from opening our Seattle office 25 years ago. For the first two years, we tried to connect with everyone in town in our key market. In hindsight, this delayed our connection to key decision makers. Eventually we got there and our Seattle office is a huge long-term success story.
In Portland, we re-evaluated our strategy. We created a targeted list of key individuals in key markets and focused on it. Even when other potential clients wanted to meet, we prioritized our list. Focusing our energy and resources has been much more successful in the first two years of opening the Portland office. We doubled our revenue in year one as compared to the first year opening our office in Seattle.