How Some Companies Are Working to Build an Inclusive and Diverse Workforce

Leslie S. Emery

Leslie Emery is the Communications Manager for NIA. Her responsibilities include marketing and NIA News. She can be reached at 703-464-6422, ext. 112 or

August 1, 2021

This June, Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) hosted a daylong Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity (IDE) Summit and invited NIA staff member Leslie Emery to attend and hear insights and best practices from experts and companies looking to achieve a healthy cultural and sustainable future in the construction industry. Below is a summary of summit events.

The virtual event kicked off with representatives from three companies honored for their IDE programs who spoke about what has worked best at their companies. At United Rentals, Kacie Brewer manages inclusion councils and launches advocacy events including Women’s History Month, Diversity Month, and Mental Health Awareness Month. Brewer’s diversity and inclusion (D&I) programming includes employee resource groups, a D&I survey and company coaching program, and a diversity partnership with other construction companies, suppliers, subcontractors, and hiring managers. She noted that her company’s internal culture sets them apart, explaining, “We strive to build a better United Rentals that is inclusive, empowered, and safe—where members of our United family go home each day even better than they arrived. It is our responsibility to take care of, support, and encourage one another in all that we do. We all play an important and active role in fostering a culture of integrity, trust, and understanding, and we are committed to continuous growth that can only broaden our perspectives by listening, learning, and encouraging others to do the same. Together, we will build an even better future.”

Hensel Phelps’s Manager of Supplier Diversity David Fisher focused on how the company recognizes the value of working with small businesses, referring to them as trade partners—a term they use instead of subcontractors—and building those partnerships. “Subcontractors doesn’t put you on a level playing field. Trade partners does,” he emphasized. He also noted that they look at the long-term support their trade partners value, which he emphasized is based on relationships and safety. “If you work with us, get your safety program tight!” he added, in a statement that was well received by participants.

Helix Electric’s EVP and Chief People Officer Rudy Alanis outlined four key areas—tracked on a monthly basis—around the company’s IDE philosophy, which he described as “critical and not a flavor of the month.”

  1. This is not just a human resources (HR) initiative. It starts at the top with a commitment from leadership, and he points to his company’s Diversity Council that has specific goals.
  2. Understand the external factors. Alanis interacts with outside groups such as the National Association of Women in Construction and the National Black Contractors Association to understand what needs to be done.
  3. Be involved in the community. This goes beyond just giving money and focuses on partnerships to help understand the communities in which the company works.
  4. Education. Education needs to move beyond unconscious bias to a better understanding of history and a constant dialogue.

The Mindset and the Outcomes

Another representative from United Rentals, Dennis Walker, Manager of National Association Relations, introduced Keynoter Doug Harris by sharing a challenge: “Get out of your comfort zone. Don’t build a bigger box, get out of the box.”

Harris, CEO/Thought Leader of Kaleidoscope Group, has worked on IDE issues for more than 30 years. In his keynote presentation, he not only looked back but also took stock of the present and viewed into the future. One question he often gets asked is: How do we make this not a check-the-box exercise but more sustainable for the long term? In essence, how do we make it stick? He explained, “The difference between those two is accountability. You have to install and instill accountability.” To set the context for looking toward the future, Harris describes diversity as getting people in the door, inclusion as valuing differences, equity as fairness in opportunities, and unity as maximized collective effort.

Drilling down into the current construction industry challenges, Harris highlighted several topics, including:

  • Getting women and minorities interested in the industry,
  • Realizing jobsite culture is not accommodating for everyone,
  • Emphasizing the importance of supplier diversity,
  • Building connections with underrepresented groups,
  • Meeting the labor shortage, and
  • Creating a prepared workforce.

To address these issues, Harris believes that if we collectively work together to handle challenges, we will be much more powerful. How do we build unity? Harris described unity as, “A world where companies, organizations, and institutions are maximized because everyone prospers in line with their capabilities.” How does the industry work more powerfully together? Harris broke it down into the importance of self (where you are empowered), relationships (build real relationships with real conversations where you get to know people and you all grow), teams (where you know your voice is heard and valued), and organizations (big ideas fuel meaningful impact, and big ideas come from empowered people; bigger ideas come from diverse, empowered people).

explained that understanding each other is where the real learning comes from. Future work is about your thoughts, your beliefs, and your behaviors. The future is about understanding what that means to you. Interpretation leads to judgement. Understanding leads to growth. Harris’ team and organization believe in the value of expanding your network and hearing new viewpoints and ideas. Empowering people to share ideas or suggestions leads to greater efficiency and higher profits.

He said that a lot of people ask, “Doug, give me one thing to do to get better at this topic, and I say, ‘Find new friends.’ If your social interactions are just in places of comfort, it can really limit this topic. With different types of people, your interactions will enhance this topic. When you go into interactions with a desire to learn and grow, you can achieve better outcomes.”

Harris asked the question, “How is IDE tied to a company’s bottom line?” The answer:

  • Expanding revenue with new opportunities,
  • Maximizing the value of your people, and
  • Growing your company’s innovation and creativity.

He concluded, “The reality is that if you don’t change, you are going backwards. This subject keeps you relevant and successful in the future.”

A Focus on Total Human Health

The summit next turned its attention to health and well-being. In a recent interview that appeared in the April 2021 issue of Insulation Outlook, ABC CEO Michael Bellaman introduced ABC’s focus on total human health, including physical, social, mental, and spiritual (see Figure 1). The summit included a session that focused on this topic and explored depression, suicide, substance abuse, and workforce resiliency in the construction industry. Greg Sizemore, ABC Vice President of Health, Safety, Environment, and Workforce Development, expanded on the importance of transforming your company’s safety program into a total human health program, asking, “What are we doing to address the mental health of our workforce? This is the new frontier for the construction industry, and we have to pay attention to this.” He added, “You have to look under the hard hat, behind the glasses, who is that person and what are they dealing with? They may not have an addiction, but what if their son or daughter does? That is putting a lot of stress on that individual who is working on your projects. You have to look at the total human health—the body, the mind, the soul, and the spirit—as well as the physical side of things.”

Laura Lapidus, Management Liability Risk Control Director for CNA insurance company, noted that 8 in 10 employers are reporting that they are going to be putting diversity, equity, and inclusion in their corporate well-being strategy. ABC’s Sizemore added, “Too many of us on the employer side are paralyzed—how do we get started?” Lapidus noted, “You don’t have to have everything figured out. Start somewhere and build.”
Several resources include:

Sizemore added that a good first step is to contact your local American Red Cross and ask them about mental health first aid. The single biggest thing we could do to mislead our employees on the topic is to plaster “see something, say something” posters on our jobsites and have nobody ever do anything about these issues. Taking no action has consequences. Ignoring problems changes the company culture and damages trust. The follow-through, making employees aware and your frontline leadership accountable, is what will transform that culture to where mental health is an open footprint.
Lapidus offered more suggestions that focused on how your insurance works and what mental health coverage it has. She suggested an anonymous survey where you look at your Emergency Action Plan, your mental health coverage, etc. Is it working? Is it being utilized? Is it sufficient? How does your insurance work? If you do not have a mental wellness program, use online resources offered to begin one. If you do have one, you probably need to review it in terms of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Brad Lewis, Corporate Director of Supplier Diversity at Hensel Phelps and ABC’s 2021 IDE Committee Chair, summed it up: “These are important discussions to have. It’s not just about the buildings we build, but it’s about the people who build them.”

Recruitment and Retention Insights from the Pros

Labor shortages, recruitment and retention challenges, and other HR topics are closely tied to a company’s IDE strategy. Three speakers offered their practical insights on what is working at large and small companies in the construction industry.

Courtney Holt, Talent and Diversity Manager, Cianbro, which is based in Pittsfield, Maine, and employs more than 4,000 people, spoke of the importance of interviewing for cultural fit and promoting from within as often as possible. Other specific initiatives the company uses include a rotational program for recent college graduates that last 18 months to 2 years, where they spend 1/3 of time in estimating, 1/3 in a field supervisor role, and the last 1/3 in project management; and virtual reality demonstrations with elementary students. Allowing them to virtually operate a crane or drive a dump truck can get kids as young as fourth grade thinking about construction as a career.
Holt offers three pieces of advice:

  1. Look at your current team and what the makeup is to get a baseline. Use that to help you measure success in your initiatives.
  2. Develop an accurate forecasting tool for staffing and recruitment that everyone can use.
  3. Be prepared to solicit feedback every day: What should we start doing, stop doing, continue doing?

Traci Hardin, VP of Safety and Compliance, Meyer Najem Construction, which is based in Fishers, Indiana, and has completed projects in 16 states, spoke of her company’s strong internship committee, made up of employees who were previous interns. She advises going down to the high-school level, especially for a skilled labor workforce, offering job shadow opportunities for high school and college students. Hardin also discussed the following points.

  • Ask yourself, what does your image look like as an employer? What do people see when they visit your website and see you at events?
  • With so many technological advancements, Meyer Najem continues to do training and career development using technology, including iPads, laptops, drones, and building information modeling, which helps employees feel like they are contributing to the success of the company.
  • Hardin emphasizes that people care about safety records in construction, especially parents when you are recruiting high schoolers. Do the training, promote safety, and show them the career path.

Larry Lopez, President, Green JobWorks, a small staffing and construction company based in Hanover, Maryland, emphasized the value of showing a pathway or road map for success to retain employees in a large or small business. He advises talking to employees about their own personal goals, seeing where they align with the company’s goals, mission, and vision. He noted that the culture you create has to be strong enough to transfer to the employee at the furthest jobsite away from your office. Additional points included:

  • To evaluate turnover, look inward. Ask yourself, would I want to work for myself? When employees leave, do an exit interview, otherwise you are just guessing about what you are doing right or wrong.
  • Health care and benefits are great recruiting tools. If employees can see it via technology on their phones, they understand it.
  • Lopez suggested to look at the people in the room where decisions are made at your business and look to diversify the voices in that room. Give people a voice and empower them. Growth and profitability will come.

IDE and Industry Growth

When announcing in June 2021 that ABC had promoted Tia Perry to the position of ABC’s Director of IDE, Bellaman noted future industry growth that is embedded in IDE, “In a fair and open competitive construction industry, innovation in value creation is imperative to winning work and sustaining a world-class business.” He added that the Perry will be instrumental in helping the industry achieve an inclusive and culturally competent workforce that is welcoming to all people, where employees and suppliers are limited only by their own potential and desire.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed in this article are those of the ABC presenters and do not necessarily represent the opinions of NIA or its members, nor should they be construed as legal advice. All information provided is for informational purposes. Seek the advice of a Human Resources Specialist and/or an Employment Law Attorney regarding specific policies for your company.