The Value of a Diverse Workforce
By Kirstyn Quandt, from NCCER blog
A large portion of society is still under the impression that diversity is limited solely to gender, race and religion, when in fact, it encompasses a great deal more.
Individuals are beginning to realize that a diverse workforce brings incomparable value to an organization and that the unique combination of different experiences, backgrounds and skill sets, when coupled with hard work, has the power to propel industry progress forward. The construction industry needs this type of forward thinking progress to assist in filling the skills gap, but unfortunately, we are still trying to use the same old ideology that may have contributed to the gap in the first place. While recent training programs have tried to adapt with technological advancements including the added capabilities of smartphones and apps to engage workers, we are still lagging behind. In order for our industry to truly thrive, we must embrace the innate power of a diverse workforce and utilize it to its fullest extent. With a passionate, innovative and diverse group of individuals striving to uphold the standard of our industry, we are bound to overcome any obstacle in our path.
Picture a construction craft professional and without hesitation, the first image in your mind is a middle-age man with a hard hat, tool belt and pair of steel-toed boots. With an image that is both outdated and undesirable splashed across all media outlets, our industry’s recruitment efforts are suffering.
While individuals of all genders and ethnicities have made great strides in breaking down barriers in the construction industry, they are all still fighting the stigma of a predominantly male profession. As a result, those pursuing this path endure much skepticism for choosing a craft profession as opposed to other, more traditional options. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics 2016 report, women constituted 46.8% of the overall workforce but only 9.1% of those employed worked in the construction industry. And this small percentage even includes positions in accounting, reception and management amongst many others, not just craft professionals. Additionally, the construction workforce showed low numbers across the board with only 5.8% African American, 1.9% Asian and 28.9% Hispanic or Latino.
The issue is not that there is a shortage of jobs available in construction. In fact, it is quite the opposite as seen by the headlines across industry newsfeeds about the skills gap and labor shortages. There are an abundance of jobs available for those with the necessary skills and credentials. According to the Construction Labor Market Analyzer, by the year 2019 the industry will have a deficit of 1.5 million craft professionals and that number could increase quickly with the positive growth being created by the new administration. The bigger problem stems from the fact that jobs in our industry appear to be reserved only for those resembling the cookie cutter construction craft professionals portrayed in the media. This creates an almost immediate dismissal of construction career paths and that alone should be enough for our industry to realize that embracing diversity is a crucial step in the right direction. It is imperative that we recruit, train and retain skilled workers, but before we can be more effective at doing this, we must work to change the perception of careers in construction.
THE POWER OF PERCEPTION
Psychology plays an integral role in all that we do, including the career paths we choose to pursue and our opinions of all other professions. We carry those feelings around with us— forgetting some and keeping others—and end up inadvertently communicating biased feelings of our own with friends, family and even strangers. While many industries such as education and health care are known for educating America’s future leaders and saving lives, the construction industry is not regarded as highly by young professionals. Why is that? Angela Simon from Wentworth Institute of Technology refers to this gap in understanding as the “disconnect between the stereotype of the industry and its reality.”
With an innate bias towards a college degree, nontraditional options including careers in construction are commonly portrayed as the less desirable choice. Unfortunately, this bias is projected onto children at a young age. In a 2013 study conducted by the Associated Schools of Construction, 104 children between the ages of 7-12 were surveyed and asked about their own career aspirations. The goal of this survey was to analyze how children view women in the construction industry and if they believe women are capable of performing the necessary job duties as well as men. Only 10% of the young girls surveyed expressed interest in a nontraditional path and out of all 104 surveyed, only two young boys discussed futures in the construction industry as civil engineers.
The same study noted that 42 children believed only men perform construction work, and 18 of the 42 were female. The biggest reason they believed the field was not suited to women was the idea that women do not have the strength necessary to execute the required job duties. Not only did this study conclude that children’s perceptions of various career paths are affected by their surroundings and the images presented to them, but also that the gender perception issue our industry faces translates into the way children view their ability to excel in the field before they’ve had a chance to test and develop their skills. Even more alarming is the young age at which construction falls off the radar completely as a career possibility.
So how do we encourage youth to pursue their passions regardless of inaccurate portrayals and outdated stereotypes? We must promote construction as an industry of inclusion by highlighting the many success stories of both men and women of different ethnicities currently in the workforce. We must encourage these individuals to become the new face of our industry and offer mentorship opportunities for students as they embark on their own construction career path. Students everywhere live for the moment when someone guides and supports them along their path to success. When individuals, young and old, are able to forge a personal connection and have an “if they can, I can” moment of brilliance, something changes. And that change may be enough to begin overcoming our industry’s workforce shortage.
A NEW TAKE ON DIVERSITY
You can talk about diversity in the context of appearance and how in a classroom of 30 students, no two individuals look exactly alike, or you can talk about one’s mental tenacity to accomplish a task and the others who procrastinate until minutes before the quickly approaching deadline. Diversity is not a singular entity, but instead, it is the compilation of personality, skill and situational outlook wrapped into one colossal force with the power to initiate change. Recently, individuals, companies and entire industries have started to take note of what diversity really means and what it can offer. If you ask any executive why diversity is crucial to the success of their company, they will detail a long list of meaningful, research-proven reasons. But without commitment to what diversity really is and what it can do for an industry as a whole, no amount of report reading and moving presentations will equate to meaningful inclusion and tangible results.
If you’ve ever completed a group project and given a basic PowerPoint presentation, you know that there are those group partners with fluent speaking skills that you want eloquently presenting the information and then there are those who effortlessly design the template and ensure all technical aspects are in order before presentation day. It is not a new concept that we tailor tasks toward the strengths and weaknesses of our team members. However, what seems to be overlooked is that this very basic concept of having teams made up of various types of people with different attributes is directly linked to diversity and the varying skill sets that when combined, make projects successful.
Debbie Dickinson, CEO of Crane Industries, commented in an article that “diversity drives innovation.” While the recruitment of a diverse workforce is important, the work doesn’t stop there. Retaining these individuals necessitates a great deal of attention, and it is critical to the longevity of our industry. If current employees continue to look elsewhere for industries that are more innovative and forward thinking, our shortages and skills gap will grow exponentially faster than they already have. Adapting with evolving trends and ways of thinking extends far beyond newly implemented training programs. We’ve all heard the saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Evidenced by the vast labor shortages, something needs fixing and it’s much more than the phrase’s grammar.
FROM RECRUITMENT TO RETIREMENT: A LIFECYCLE INCLUSION
Factoring in diversity to future recruitment efforts is only half of the equation. If we are to give substance and sustainability to industry-wide diversity inclusion, we must first start by addressing and fixing current issues such as concerns of workplace harassment and a lack of role models that are deterring youth from pursuing careers in the industry. In order to initiate lasting change, diversity must be a lifecycle inclusion that we commit to developing within our own workforces and the industry as a whole.
To seek a competitive edge and incorporate as many skill sets as possible into our workforce, our actions must match our aspirational words. From the hiring of employees to thorough training and future promotions, every step along the way needs to promote the inherent value of diversity and the importance of each and every employee. Once we can recognize that a lack of diversity is prohibiting future industry growth, we can revamp our workforce development strategies. By encouraging networking and camaraderie amongst employees, we can redefine the perception of careers in construction and accurately portray the successful, hardworking image of our workforce.
It is crucial that those currently in the construction workforce understand that diversity is not important for the sake of being diverse, but that it brings benefits and opportunities that our industry has long been missing. In a “Construction Dive” article, Emily Peiffer quoted Kirby Wu, president of Wu and Associates, Inc., when he said, “Our business model is not to promote that we’re a diversity-owned business first. We promote that we’re a good construction company, and by the way we are diverse.” He went on to describe the noticeable feeling of comfort as interviewees enter, look around the office and realize there is a diverse group of individuals comprising the workforce. This same level of welcoming comfort is at the core of mentorship and role model inclusion that needs to be implemented across the entire industry for aspiring and current craft professionals.
Today, many are making great strides in our industry. Crane Industries renewed its certification as a Women Business Enterprise from the National Women Business Owners Corporation, an achievement awarded when female-majority ownership of a company is reached and Wu & Associates, Inc. won a 2017 Associated Builders and Contractors National Diversity Excellence Award. These are only a few of the progressive stories we should be sharing with young students and our communities, but instead we are consumed with labor shortage predictions and outdated ways of thinking. We have the power to change the way our industry is viewed, but it takes commitment and a diverse group of minds, ideas and talents to get there.
Construction is commonly portrayed as a male-dominated industry and often appears unapproachable to women and minorities. Add on the nontraditional label at a time when four-year degrees are the norm and filling the labor shortages with a diverse workforce seems nearly impossible. With numerous job opportunities available but a lack of interest from the next generation of workers, it is clear that somewhere between recruitment strategies and new training programs we missed a pivotal mark and failed to effectively share with society the opportunities for success and personal growth in construction.
In order to recruit the next generation of hardworking, knowledgeable craft professionals, we must change the way individuals think about our industry and the skilled men and women who comprise it. This means embracing the power of diversity and highlighting the many role models and success stories of women and minorities in construction to help youth envision their own career pathway in the industry. We must recognize that outdated stereotypes are thwarting our forward progress, and take our first steps towards becoming an industry of choice. By rethinking the meaning of diversity, we can begin to understand the value it can bring to our industry. Only then, will we begin rebuilding the diverse workforce that builds America.