Diversity on the jobsite and within the various departments of a construction company has numerous benefits, but building and retaining a truly diverse workforce takes an unwavering commitment to equity within organization walls. That commitment requires organizations to invest in the needs of all of its people and divest in systems that are causing harm.

The most important first step is to actively engage in genuine efforts to self-reflect on ways that a company might be actively instituting or perpetuating systems that exclude, devalue, and oppress Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), women, gender-nonconforming people and people who identify as LGBTQIA+. If a disproportionate number of people within these groups are unable to access or advance within a company, its systems must be reviewed for bias and institutional racism, sexism, transphobia and homophobia. Once identified, each of these issues must be addressed with intentionality and focus.

Is this task a substantial undertaking? Absolutely. Is the reward worth the effort? Without a doubt. Companies that choose not to invest resources in this level of self-exploration and honesty might never reach their full potential and instead will continue to limit themselves, the success of their projects, their partnerships and their people.

Access and advancement are imperative

Construction typically does not require a college degree at its entry point, eliminating the time investment and debt associated with other well-paying professions. It provides interesting work that pays a living wage and benefits. Although construction is not immune to economic downturns, it can be more sustainable because the government typically invests in it first to bring back economic growth. For someone without equitable access to a construction career, there is no opportunity to avail oneself of these benefits. Importantly, if some people are denied this opportunity at the outset due to bias and systems of exclusion, construction companies and the industry itself will never realize the true benefits of a diverse workforce.

A diverse workforce is valuable because it encourages innovation and elevates new perspectives. In construction, each project is different and the road to success includes distinct facets. Each person involved in a project brings a unique set of skills and abilities, adding to the company’s overall ability to identify issues, solve problems, and deliver a successful project. The more diversity in experience, perspective and ingenuity, the better the ability to offer the best solution. In addition, when employees feel that their company is committed to diversity, and feel included, their investment and ability to innovate is increased.

Building a diverse workforce requires construction companies to reach out to marginalized groups, place value on the diversity of their lived experiences, and prove to them that there are opportunities to work and be promoted. At the outset, simply seeing construction as a career path might mean the difference between access and obstacle. This requires companies to recognize that there is something to the mantra “you can’t be it if you can’t see it.” Construction companies should ensure that anyone who has worked for them has the ability to “be it.” This includes identifying and eliminating obstacles and barriers, including systems of oppression, within their own processes and practices.

Ultimately, companies have the power to decide whether BIPOC, women, gender non-confirming people, or people who identify as LGBTQIA+ are seen as valuable to the company and are recognized as leaders deserving of advancement. Furthermore, not
only do these new leaders serve as examples of success to motivate others within the organization, but they also introduce people within their own communities to the idea of a career in construction. Community-centered organizations like Oregon Tradeswomen Inc., Latino Build, and programs administered by Portland Opportunities and Industrialization Center, Constructing Hope and Girls Build are great examples of how the next generation of nondominant culture leaders are helping our diverse youth “see it.”

An inclusive and respectful workplace is required

Creating access for marginalized groups is the first step. Organizations must then be prepared to engage in the self-reflection necessary to institute policies, processes and practices that help them retain the people who have overcome institutional obstacles to access construction careers – people who historically have been pushed out. In essence, retaining a diverse workforce requires companies to create inclusive and respectful work environments for all employees.

Part of the self-reflection required for a company to create an inclusive and respectful work environment for all of its employees is analyzing the intersections of discrimination, opportunity and power within the organization itself. Using equity analysis is a beneficial tool in this regard. It helps identify racial, gender and other disparities that interfere or harm organizations, as well as provides ways to mitigate or eliminate those disparities. It assists organizations to align with outside equity initiatives and create processes and programs to support recruitment and retention of a diverse workforce.

Organizations that use equity analysis can proactively identify unintended consequences before damage is done by evaluating policies and practices, and then developing creative solutions to address concerns. If these issues are not identified and addressed in advance, the ability to recover and rebuild trust with those harmed can be arduous and, at times, insurmountable.

Final thoughts

A company that creates access and opportunity, as well as an environment and culture where all employees feel included and respected, reveals it has an ability to retain a diverse workforce. If companies want to attract and retain the best people, they need to create the best work environments. Ensuring access to the construction industry, valuing different lived-experiences, identifying and rectifying systems of exclusion and oppression, and utilizing equity analysis are good initial efforts for a company to become respected and sought after. At the very least, these are important steps to take to ensure a company is valuing its most important asset – its people.

Column first appeared in the Oregon Daily Journal of Commerce on July 17, 2020.

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