The case for diversity in hiring and buying goods and services is simple. The demographics of the talent pool available to construction over the next 20 years are already set. Those workers, managers and entrepreneurs have already been born. The need for change in our industry is not a matter of social responsibility, it is a matter of arithmetic.
The true competition we face for the future is the competition for the next generation of talent.
Let’s begin with an example of how change really happens—it starts at the top. In the early 1980s, members of the Business Round Table—among the largest buyers of construction services—realized that contractor safety practices had a direct impact on their customers’ businesses. Those buyers took action by including safety in the criteria for selecting contractors. As a result, leading construction firms changed their practices and started selling safety performance as a competitive advantage.
The driver of the next big change will be anchor institutions—hospitals, universities, governments, etc.—that serve the entire community. Buyers realize that their service providers must invest in the talent supply chain, and we as contractors have a vested interest in finding the talent to serve our customers. As a service business, construction will thrive if and only if we create our own path to reflect internally the demographics of communities that we serve. Our customers will expect and demand that of us.
What will the future look like? As far as racial and gender equity, I believe the future marketplace will require that demographics of businesses providing goods and services be posted at the point of sale. Every manufacturer, grocery store chain, dry cleaner, restaurant and bar—and every contractor—will have to publicly display the number of executives, managers, supervisors and line workers who are male, female, Caucasian, Black, Hispanic and Asian.
That posting, on websites, at business entries and in all sales and proposal literature, will change the conversation with the buyers of our services. Such postings will invite construction leaders to present their investment and actions as competitive advantage rather than as social commitment. The investments will improve the postings.
What does active talent supply chain management look like? It starts with getting clear about goals. We need to be more specific about our messages and methods if we really mean to include minorities and women in our future. Progress will require changing expectations with current partners and creating new links with individuals and institutions already committed to diversity.
If we are recruiting talent from vocational education schools and universities that are not graduating the demographics of their communities, we have no hope for change in our companies. Recruiting at traditionally Black colleges is a start, but investing in scholarships for minorities and women and supporting those students with paid internships will be evidence of our changed expectations.
More effort will be needed in engaging students and their families as informed consumers of education. Waiting until the junior and senior year career day to inform students of the path to success gives them neither the time nor the incentive to go back and take courses that they missed.
The next step is to teach the teachers. Externships for middle school math teachers in the summer will pay real dividends. They will be our best salespeople to convince student consumers of education to buy more of what is needed for construction.
Finally, we need to enter the classroom to disrupt the processes that are failing now. We can pay our employees to read in grade schools and to tutor in middle and high schools. Our employees will change the trajectory of the students they reach, and they will learn valuable lessons about the workforce that they will lead.
We also can make our apprenticeship programs available to ninth-graders, rather than at a later stage, which is more usual. Over a four-year period of in-school, after-school and summer experiences, we can develop committed craftpersons at 80% of the journeyperson level, and the students will have a reliable path to a high-paying career.
As construction leaders, we must model in our behavior, investments and personal engagement the actions that will lead to change. Those companies that succeed in engaging 100% of the talent pool will own 100% of the future opportunities.
Pete Strange, chairman emeritus of Messer Construction, can be reached at PStrange2@messer.com.
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