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As a technology executive in the Engineering/ Construction industry, I live in two worlds challenged by a lack of diversity and inclusion. There are many parallels in not only the industries, but in the way, we can apply solutions for these issues in Engineering/ Construction.
Those of us in the technology world routinely argue that investing more in technology will create higher profits and more nimble organizations. Collaboration will be improved, people can work on projects regardless of their location, and we can get the best solutions for our clients if we leverage technology and invest more in it. The E/C industry spends less on technology than most other industries, including other professional services firms, and is at the bottom of the overall professional services segment for both spending on technology and profits. I think these two are related, and there are several studies that show that is true in other industries.
The same is true for Diversity and Inclusion. As an industry, we do not invest as much as we should (either financially or with leadership time), and we suffer from low profits, low employee engagement, and collaboration is challenged. We have “group-think”. Look around the next meeting you attend in your firm. Diverse or homogenous? What about the invisible characteristics that make people have different perspectives? What schools did people attend? What part of town do they call home? What do they do on the weekend? Do they attend a church, mosque, synagogue, or temple? Do they have kids, and if so, what ages? What about pets? Are they married? Have a partner? Single? Widowed? Divorced?
"It is critical for construction/ engineering firms to actively seek diversity in our teams and be actively inclusive in creating solutions"
You may be asking why any of these matters. The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) defines diversity as “the collective mixture of differences and similarities that includes for example, individual and organizational characteristics, values, beliefs, experiences, backgrounds, preferences, and behaviors.” SHRM also defines inclusion as: “the achievement of a work environment in which all individuals are treated fairly and respectfully, have equal access to opportunities and resources, and can contribute fully to the organization’s success.”
Contributing to the “organization’s success” can take several different paths, including bringing varied perspectives to teams that create solutions. When a team is designing a transit station, it helps if they actually use public transit. When we work on a water project for a community, it helps if we know about the community. When we design a new IT system, we need to understand who is using it, what problem it solves, and all of the other factors in our use cases. We need varied perspectives on project teams to get the best solutions. Regardless of why they hold a unique perspective, we need to value those in team discussions, and actively include them when creating our teams.
Diversity also appeals to clients and prospective clients. Universities, hospitals, state and local government agencies, federal agencies, and many large commercial firms that utilize Engineering/Construction services consider diversity and inclusion to be key elements of their missions and organizational values. Clients want to work with firms that share their values; building diversity throughout the organization can provide an essential bridge between a firm and its clients. There is an overwhelming amount of data showing that more diverse teams are more creative and more profitable. It is about putting the firm in a better position to develop better solutions.
It is critical for construction/ engineering firms to actively seek diversity in our teams and be actively inclusive in creating solutions. It is not a numbers game or a quota system; it is truly about seeking other perspectives and opinions so that we truly get the best solutions for our clients, our communities, and our employees. Diversity and Inclusion do not just happen on their own–we need to actively recruit from different universities, trade schools and the military when we typically go back to the same sources. Alumni connections are great sources of talent, but the folks from those tend to have similar perspectives and demographics as your existing employees. Find a new place to recruit, including groups for transitioning military and organizations that promote women’s professional development. See if your community has a Black or Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and connect with them.
Once people are hired, it does not end. We need to have programs that connect people to their work that give people good development opportunities and feel connected to both the company and their communities. We have all read that engaged employees are much more productive than passive employees, and surely more so than disengaged employees. Additionally, engaged employees tend to stay with us longer. One way to help with employee engagement is to sponsor Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) to help staff connect with folks like them in the company. Having these valuable resources helps to amplify a sense of connection with the firm, as well as organizational pride.
Kleinfelder started the Kleinfelder Women’s Network as a way for women across our 60 offices to connect, provide development opportunities, advise senior leadership on policy issues, and generally help the firm grow its talent. Many firms have sponsored similar ERGs for LGBT, Hispanic, African American, former military, and other affinity-based groups. There are many resources available to help prioritize, launch, and bolster efforts like this in your firm.
If we approached diversity and inclusion like we do technology, as a business imperative, profits would increase, collaboration improve, and our best people would work on projects regardless of their background, location, or expertise.