The What and Why of DEI at Mortenson

April 12, 2021

Minneapolis-based M.A. Mortenson Company employs over 6,000 team members in regional offices, traveling groups, and project sites across the country. The company has four major divisions of focus (each subdivided into various specialty categories and specializations) – commercial construction, commercial real estate development, commercial real estate investment, and energy and infrastructure. (which includes renewables, transmission lines, and battery storage.)

The company has been operating in Utah since the early 1980s and opened their permanent Salt Lake City office in 2019. We caught up with Maja Rosenquist, Senior Vice President; Joffrey Wilson, Director of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI); and Salt Lake Business Development Executive, Josh Caldwell, to learn more about the company’s practices.

Corporate Level
The company’s DEI strategy was amplified five years ago, when they hired a consultant to bring external expertise to building a more formal DEI plan. From the plan stemmed senior leadership training, and the launch of an “I&D” oversight committee, which later evolved to “DEI” to include a focus on equity.

“We established some signature events in those first few years,” said Wilson. “When 2020 arrived, we decided to accelerate our efforts. The company created a new position, which is the role I’m in today. I started off really listening and learning – talking to the leaders of our affinity groups, talking to team members through listening sessions, but also to competitors, other corporations, and DEI practitioners to get a sense of what we’re doing well and what we need to do differently.”

Mortenson focused on underrepresented communities, both People of Color and Women.  With respect to women, according to Wilson, “Women make up just 10% of the employment base of the construction industry and just 2% of the trades nationwide.”

“The work that Mortenson has done over time [to elevate female employees] makes us leaders in the space. We’re pushing the industry, but we still have a long way to go,” he says.

Mortenson has aggressive, quantifiable goals in place for each pillar of its DEI program. Wilson explains:

“As it pertains to diversity, a key element is workforce composition. We aim to meet or beat the composition of the communities where we work and where we live.”

“For equity, we measure how we advance people and how we pay people. We’ve hired an external party to conduct a pay equity audit so we can make sure that we’re fair in how we move people through the organization and how people are compensated.”

“And for inclusion, we’ve done an engagement survey every two years so we can understand if everyone feels they are being heard, and that we have an environment where inclusion is felt in a meaningful way. That survey data helps us to understand how we’re performing and to establish corresponding goals,” Wilson concludes. “There’s a quantitative side and a qualitative side to what success looks like in this space.”

Rosenquist adds that they’re also working on a number of industry-wide initiatives. “We’ve actually formed a mini-consortium with some of the large general contractors across the country to focus on DEI issues, and we’re leading out on an event we’re calling ‘Inclusion Week’ in October that celebrates the important contributions of people of all races, nationalities, orientations, and genders in our industry. It is another opportunity to continue exploring options about how we bring more diversity to the industry and drive toward more inclusion.”

The Approach in Utah
Currently 180 Mortenson team members live in Utah, largely supporting the Facebook data center project in Eagle Mountain. That project represents about $1 billion of ongoing construction work.

Caldwell describes the mix of the Utah team: “Our local hires—which represent about a third of our project labor force — are reflective of the local demographic, but our internal recruits moving to Utah are more reflective of Mortenson as whole, which tends to be more diverse locally, and across the industry.”

The Utah DEI efforts are consistent with Mortenson’s overall strategy, which includes a champion structure and robust affinity groups. “Diversity is all different slices – things you can see, things you can’t see,” Wilson states. “So, it’s important we support affinity groups which represent all different kinds of diversity, including LGBTQ employees.”

Quarterly engagements through the affinity groups include some virtual events organized by Mortenson’s corporate office. Others are listening sessions to learn from team members about the experience of being at Mortenson. There are also events around annual events such as “Women in Construction Week” which can have central and local production.

Rosenquist indicates that Mortenson’s Utah craft workforce consists of 110 people, 33% of whom are women. “That’s strong, but where we’re looking to advance is on the equity side. It’s not uncommon for women to be the flaggers or the laborers cleaning a site. What we want to see is equity in how we advance women in leadership or skilled trade positions at an equal pace of their male counterparts. We are taking the same approach with our people of color.”

“In this last year, we made the commitment to advance equity into our high-level strategy. There are also time-in-the-role metrics. How long does it take people in their career progression?”

“We do have a lot of women in leadership positions in Utah,” Rosenquist continues. “We think that’s a differentiator for us. I’d like to see us further advanced from an ethnicity standpoint; that’s a place we’re focusing on now.”

What specific challenges do you have in Utah?
“Offering flexibility in terms of work-life balance or working from home – that’s an industry-wide and probably an economy-wide challenge,” Rosenquist states, “but it’s of particular importance in Utah. We’ve changed our parental-leave policy a lot over the last two years. Where it was when I started having kids…it was not something to brag about to anybody. We’re in a place now that I feel really good about.”

Onboarding is another focus area. “We’ve actually moved a fair amount of diverse talent into this state, but we’ve had to be super-intentional around onboarding into Utah. I’m talking in terms of cultural norms and things to be aware of to be successful in this community. It’s been one additional layer when you think of the layers of onboarding talent. I think we’ve gotten to a really good spot in that people are excited to be in Utah and thriving in the local communities, but there is some education to help people accelerate their acclimation to the area,” Rosenquist remarks.

Diversifying the Construction Talent Pipeline
Rosenquist notes the company made a process change a number of years ago. “We call it the ‘Diverse Slate’ rule. Any key position that we hire, we are interviewing a woman or person of color as part of the process. This is really to hold ourselves accountable for increasing the percentage of women and people of color that we’re hiring into the organization.”

“Construction is an industry that lacks diversity in leadership positions, so you have to work harder in terms of finding the right pipeline. There are traditional construction management schools that have been the backbone of the industry for many years – they have great programs, but they also produce a lot of the same looking candidates with the same backgrounds. So, if we’re looking to have different perspectives represented in our hiring pools, we’re having to broaden the pool of organizations that we’re recruiting from as well.”

Wilson elaborates: “There are groups within the traditional schools that you can tap to find diverse talent. The National Society for Black Engineers and the Society for Women Engineers are examples. Aside from that, we identified some additional schools. We’re in our third year of recruiting at Howard University and our second year at North Carolina A&T. Texas A&M and Prairieview A&M are also productive sources.”

Caldwell continues: “In Utah, we’re working with industry organizations such as Commercial Real Estate for Women (CREW) the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) at both Weber State University and the University of Utah, and the Women’s Council through the Masters of Real Estate Development program at the U. We are in active conversations with these organizations in terms of recruitment, but also in terms of supporting the industry as a whole. We’re also involved with the Construction Pathways through the State of Utah and Weber State University.”

Wilson continues, “Internships and scholarships are important programs because they help build a pipeline of future construction leaders, and many underrepresented communities are participating. It’s part of our effort to bring more women and people of color to the industry and reach students at an early stage.”

Rosenquist and Wilson also serve on a team developing a next-generation scholarship program in collaboration with Scholarship America. “We’re focusing on our craft workforce, which can be upwards of 4,000 team members in any given year,” Rosenquist says. “Children of our workforce can apply for these scholarships, really in the hopes of providing first-time education to young students that come from construction families. We’re making sure that underserved communities are part of the recipient pool for these scholarships.”

What advice do you have for other Utah companies?
Rosenquist begins: “The advice I would offer is you have to start somewhere, even if it’s just understanding what you currently have going on. The head in the sand approach of ‘we’re not going to track what our current state is’ isn’t going to cut it in the future. There are small steps to be taken and it all starts with understanding your current state of affairs and what you think the future looks like, even if that is envisioning a future 10 years out and what it takes to get there.”

Rosenquist continues: “Listen to your employees, listen to your customers, listen to different stakeholders to get a sense of what’s working and not working. That was very helpful for us in the last year to level set and start to articulate who we want to be.”

Wilson concurs: “We’re trying to make sure that our team members know what it is we’re trying to accomplish, and why it is we’re trying to accomplish it, realizing that different people are in different places on their own personal journey. So, my advice? Define the ‘what and why.’”

Caldwell concludes: “I see DEI as a huge opportunity, not just for us, but also for the industry to inform how this conversation needs to move forward. This is an opportunity for us to bring people who have different experiences and perspectives into our company. That is an undeniable strategic advantage. At the end of the day, it’s every bit as much about doing the smart thing as it is about doing the right thing.”

Other Utah AEC companies, too, are proactively addressing issues of diversity and inclusion. Thoughtful and positive momentum is happening in an industry that, historically, has been perceived as slow to change. - Editor

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