How to Promote Diversity and Inclusion: Insights from Black Construction Professionals

diversity in construction

Today, Black people are underrepresented in the construction industry. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicate that Black people comprise just 6% of the U.S. construction workforce. According to the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC), this low percentage is due to a lack of familiarity with the industry.

Another significant issue is that Black and minority workers regularly experience racism and bias in the industry. As one example, ENR reports, "Black leaders say they more often see an underlying systemic racism that disadvantages Black workers in everything from training opportunities to reaching the C-Suite."

These are all important matters that the industry needs to be aware of — and address.

To that end, we recently spoke to several Black construction professionals to hear their perspectives, including:

  • Dwayne Sellars, VDC Director at W. M. Jordan Company
  • Lorrin Blair, PE, Manager, Technical Solutions, at Autodesk
  • Vincent J. Spencer, Studio Director, Gensler
  • Kim Bates, Enterprise Systems Strategies, DPR
  • Cliff Cole, Director of Virtual Design and Construction at The PENTA Building Group

Below, we explore a few of the key insights and takeaways ahead of the panel session. Have a look below, and be sure to catch the full session at AU 2020.

What Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity Truly Mean in Today’s World

The conversation will kick off a discussion on the differences between diversity, inclusion, and equity (DI&E).

According to the panelists, while being diverse certainly has a racial component to it, true diversity transcends race and involves having individuals with different experiences, ideas, and skills.

Vincent J. Spencer, Studio Director, Gensler

“Diversity to me means a welcome embrace of all individuals and taking value in those individual differences between that group. When I say that, I'm talking about personality, learning style, life experiences beyond just culture or gender, but also religious, faith, and any kind of social economic class,” says Spencer.

According to Blair, diversity is “about bringing people together that have different backgrounds, different opinions, different experiences, and getting them in the same room.”

On the other hand, inclusion is "making sure that everyone has a voice and that they feel welcomed. They’re not afraid to share opinions and to share their differences with each other. It's not just about bringing people together, but making sure that there's that welcoming part of it as well," Blair says.

And then there’s equity, which is creating opportunities for underrepresented individuals.

"Equity to me is about an even balance," shares Sellars. "Is there opportunity for everyone to be at an even scale, and is there opportunity to have an equal stake in the game?"

Why DI&E is Good for Business

DI&E values have a material effect not just on the culture of organizations, but on their output and bottom line. Organizational diversity, inclusion, and equity empower employees and encourage higher levels of performance.

Kim Bates, Enterprise Systems Strategies, DPR

“When you have folks who are feeling good about themselves, their colleagues, and the culture of the organization, they're going to produce really great outcomes. This naturally garners innovation and creativity; this, coupled with a sense of belonging, is a win-win. I get energized off of people having a good time at work, sharing ideas - feeling heard, being productive, and meeting objectives,” says Bates.

Diversity and inclusion also open up the organization to new ideas and an improved ability to solve problems — both of which lead to better output.

According to Blair, to solve problems in the best way possible, it’s important to have “diverse ideas, solutions, and ways of thinking.”

“It's important to have a diverse team regardless of what you're doing, because it just gives you the opportunity to have so many different opinions and come up with better solutions.”

On Dealing with Racial Discrimination and Bias

Racial discrimination and bias can come in many forms. The “right” way to deal with discrimination and implicit bias depends on the situation and the people involved. When asked how panelists handle these situations, they offered the following advice.

Be Open to Frank Conversations

The most important step to take towards more diversity and inclusion is to keep talking about them.

As Blair puts it, “we need to continue to have those conversations, to recognize those differences, and if there are problems coming up, we need to call them out.”

Doing that isn’t always easy, and the panelists acknowledge that. “It’s one of the hardest things to do, at least for me,” continues Blair.

Sellars offers similar advice, saying, "a lot of this can be handled by having conversations.”

"And that's where I think people are afraid... They're comfortable with their naive ignorance as I call it. It's easy to stay in."

But overcoming fear and discomfort is critical, he continues.

"Stop being scared. You can have a conversation with somebody and be respectful, even in different singular opinions or values. I can walk away with that conversation and say, ‘All right, you have your opinion. You have your value, I have mine. And we both respect each other. Let's move on.’”

Successful dialog involves empathy and understanding of what the other person is going through, adds Cole.

“We have to have more empathy for ourselves, we have to care. And to do that — especially if you’re not aware of what’s happening or if you're ignorant to what’s going on —  you should ask the question, engage in dialogue. We’re all people and we should talk to each other.”

Find Allies

Allyship is also essential.

Lorrin Blair, PE, Manager, Technical Solutions, at Autodesk
Lorrin Blair, PE, Manager, Technical Solutions, at Autodesk

“Finding allies is one thing to do. Here at Autodesk, for example, we also have the Autodesk Black Network, which has been something that I've started to get involved with. And it's been very nice to be able to connect with people that at least look like me. We still have different experiences and different backgrounds, but it's really nice to get together with people that I think also have similar experiences to me,” shares Blair.

That being said, having allies who don’t look like you is a must, as well and Blair encourages people to seek out individuals with which they can align regardless of skin color.

Bates agrees: “It is about allyship, and folks seeing you, your work product, what you stand for, and believing in you. A key factor in that is simply having more conversations, making connections, and seeing people for who they are; and sharing who you are.”

What Organizations Can Do to Promote Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity

Affecting change requires actions both at an individual level (e.g., having conversations and finding allies) as well as on the organizational side.

To that end, the panelists shed light on what their respective organizations are doing to promote DI&E.

Assess Where the Company Stands in Terms of Diversity

Sellars says that while W. M. Jordan has committed to doing behind-the-scenes work around minority STEM programs, they're continuously taking steps to better promote diversity.

Dwayne Sellars, Senior VDC Manager at W. M. Jordan Company
Dwayne Sellars, VDC Director at W. M. Jordan Company

"The next step is, 'Let's do an assessment and say, where do we stand? What are our metrics? Where do we want to be in terms of diversity?’ That's the conversation we're having; every company should look at that.”

He continues, “We also need to examine our strategic approach to create more diversity. Let’s analyze our system of recruitment, management training, hiring, and mentoring -- these all can get us to where we want to be.”

Engage Young People

Spencer shares that it's important to engage young individuals. Throughout his career, he has worked with various groups to engage youth members and introduce them to a career in AEC.

“The key is reaching out to our youth as soon as possible. So we're doing career fairs and, right now during COVID, we're doing virtual career fairs.”

Spencer says that actively connecting with young people is critical, as many of today’s youth (particularly people of color) are exposed to a limited range of careers.

Architecture is not a typical ”dinner table profession” in the Black community, he explains. The careers that came up were ones “that were associated with the Cosby Show — doctor, attorney, or musician.”

Spencer continues, “Architecture was definitely not part of that. Even with my cousins, it was just like, ‘Architect? Huh, okay.’ It just wasn't a popular thing. Nowadays it's great, and that's what we're trying to make sure we make it a part of that dinner table conversation as a viable profession.”

Cole agrees, and affirms the importance of engaging young people. "Give them options," he says. Expose them to the opportunities out there in the world, and not just limited to what you see on TV or what the school says you have to go do.”

Diversify Your Talent

Don’t forget about cultivating a strong and diverse workforce within your company. Cole, shares that this is a priority at PENTA.

Cliff Cole, Director of Virtual Design and Construction at The PENTA Building Group
Cliff Cole, Director of Virtual Design and Construction at The PENTA Building Group

”Our focus right now as a company is how do we retain our talented employees that we have and make them feel like they are included? And like any other company I think there's room for improvement and work to be done. I think we’re truly understanding what diversity and equity really mean.”

Sellars echoes this and adds that one way to promote DI&E in your employees is to diversify your talent pools. “If you need to find great talent, you can't find it in the same place every time. So, spreading the load, being diverse in the way you go after talent has to be important,” he says.

Let’s Learn and Take Action Together

One of the ways to fight racism and bias in the industry is to learn what our Black and minority colleagues are going through. By learning and seeing what individuals and organizations are doing to address these issues, all of us can figure our role in combating racism and creating a more diverse, inclusive, and equal landscape.

Alyssa Jaber

As Manager of Customer Marketing at Autodesk, Alyssa Jaber has been partnering with Autodesk customers in the construction space for 5+ years to build their brands and powerfully tell their stories. Alyssa is a human-first leader who supports a team of talented individuals who always put the customer experience first.