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Hard Work Ahead

Going Deep with DE&I Takes a Lot More than Good Intentions.

Feb. 27, 2023
Diverse workforces are good for business, if the commitment, resources and culture are there.

Two stats that are impossible for manufacturers to ignore: The industry’s executives say it’s now 36% more difficult to source manufacturing talent than it was a decade ago. At the same time, our industry remains 79% white.

For me, the takeaway is clear. Our only way out of this massive talent shortage involves recruiting and developing workers from all backgrounds. Of course, manufacturers should be working to build diverse workforces and inclusive workplaces because it’s the right thing to do. If that’s not motivation enough, the fact remains: diversity, equity and inclusion is also good business.

How do we get there? First, let’s reframe the question. DE&I is not an objective to reach but a pathway to walk. We’ve spent too much time painting in broad strokes on these topics, running a training, checking off a box. The industry’s racial composition has hardly changed.

“It’s not a question of whether current strategies are helpful; it’s about whether they’re sufficient,” says Jared Simmons, founder and principal at OUTLAST Consulting and a former product development director at Coca-Cola. “The data is overwhelmingly clear that what we’re currently doing is insufficient,” Simmons says.

Too many companies have approached DE&I as a public relations issue. Positive outcomes in manufacturing will only come when the industry dives deep, listens to employees and commits to equitable hiring and building inviting cultures. We’ll know we’re getting somewhere when we begin to see changes at every level—entry, mid- and ownership. To kickstart that process, what follows are a few frameworks, ideas, and thoughts from industry leaders.

Community Building at the Entry Level

About 62 percent of manufacturing jobs require just a high school diploma or equivalent for entry, and even as our industry becomes more advanced by the year, it stands to reason that we can make the most immediate and substantial gains in the category of entry-level work. Step one: Realizing we must meet workers where they’re at. 

It’s very easy for manufacturers to rely on the same old hiring practices they always have, like posting ads or asking current employees for referrals. But the same old practices will produce the same old workforce. Instead, I encourage manufacturers to develop relationships that can lead to greater diversity.

That could include, say, establishing an office or warehouse in Black communities, developing robust in-house training programs that allow folks of any background to develop required skills for the job, or partnering with school districts or high schools. If the issue is that not enough people of color know about our jobs or can picture themselves doing them—and I think part of it is—then it’s on us to set up programs and opportunities that change the narrative.

“The party line is that, oh, there’s just not enough talent out there that is African American,” says Earl Cole, a Black entrepreneur who founded The Smart Tire Company, which explores commercial applications of NASA tire technology. “If you actively look for it, it exists—historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) have plenty of engineers. The problem is that people think those schools are less credible, and that’s 100% false. There are brilliant people from any background.”

Creating DE&I Programs That Enhance Opportunity

Within traditional DE&I practices, here’s one thing you might not have considered. Very often, companies create very internal, very siloed approaches to inclusion, and these approaches are often spearheaded and executed by staffers who are people of color, says Simmons. 

“What you end up with is this cycle where people of color have to do more work—and that time comes out of their life or their work-life,” thus creating even more need for the programs they’re perpetrating. “There’s a different kind of burnout that comes with being a person of color in these environments,” he says.

Simmons encourages manufacturers to seek outside help. He’s also establishing a week-long program where employees can receive training and guidance on diversity, equity and inclusion. Here’s the catch: only one person from any given company is allowed in a single cohort. Participants are plucked from their corporate structure and given time to analyze how it really functions, free of the judgments they may feel inside it.

There’s an additional goal for attendees who are people of color. Once they’ve reached the levels of middle or upper management, it can be difficult to deal with the pressures not only of performing in the role but in becoming an active mentor.

“All those coffees, all those emails, all those impromptu conversations—people are willing to do that because they want to pay it forward,” Simmons says.

But, he says, there comes a time when Black employees become the embodiment of someone who has overcome adversity—rather than, say, someone who is a finance whiz, a technology savant or an exceptional leader of people. So, Simmons’ training forces people to step back and analyze what is their core value and offering—what some may call their professional brand.

Not every organization is going to send employees to a five-day retreat. But Simmons says companies that continue to approach DE&I solely in-house should at minimum grant their teams more resources. “You have to give your chief diversity officer the kind of support any other C-suite exec would receive,” he says. “And stop taking a zero-based budget approach to DE&I. Impact costs money.”

Empowering More Black Founders and Owners

Forgive the cliché, but Earl Cole at the Smart Tire Company is literally trying to reinvent the wheel. Cole and his co-founder worked with the NASA inventors of a tire technology they were using for the Mars Rover program, a tire made of a special metal that is elastic by nature and performs similar to rubber. When they pitched a commercialization plan, NASA bought in. Gearing up to launch its first product, a bicycle tire, at the end of 2023, the company has 7,000 customers in the wings.

Now, as the former Survivor season 14 winner builds out his manufacturing capabilities, he is hungry to grow his business. He was invited onto Shark Tank last year, where Barbara Corcoran told him the best entrepreneurs often come from disadvantaged backgrounds. “I said, you know, I agree with that to a point,” says Cole. “It’s great when we’re able to overcome barriers, but it would be a lot easier if your parents handed you a lot of money.”

As the company grows, Cole hopes to build enough capital to provide more opportunities underserved groups, both through its hiring practices and through philanthropic efforts. He’s creating an internship-to-hire program that will target both HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) and predominately white institutions to “give young black students studying engineering, science, marketing or business an opportunity to gain real-world experience at a growing company and the entrepreneurial tools needed to start their own one day. He’s also recruiting “bold and brilliant” women and people of color to contribute to the company’s mission to change the world. “When you compile a diverse team, you get more ideas and better ideas from different perspectives,” he says.  

An important part of empowering manufacturing entrepreneurs of color to create jobs is equipping them with direct lines to funding opportunities. A dismal 2.4% of businesses had Black owners as of 2020, according to LendingTree. We need more equitable entrepreneurial support and funding to create a more diverse industry and a workforce that reflects the population.

Building an inclusive culture is an ongoing process that takes real work and investment. Step one for any manufacturer is to commit to putting this important work at the heart of your company.

Ethan Karp is president & CEO, MAGNET  (the Manufacturing and Growth Network), an Ohio Manufacturing Extension Partnership.

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