Last year could not have been predicted. There was a pandemic that shut down the worldwide economy, climate change impacts and unprecedented numbers of protests calling for racial justice. In light of the Black Lives Matter movement and calls for antiracist practices in the workplace, many companies have implemented diverse hiring practices and an antiracist mindset.
The new buzzwords among employers are diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). But DEI is not a fad.
These initiatives are often defined as a commitment to diversity, including race, ethnicity, disability, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, culture, national origin, marital status, religion, age and language; active work to challenge and respond to bias, harassment and discrimination; and deliberate efforts to ensure a workplace, university, institution, etc., is a diverse, equitable and inclusive environment, according to the University of Michigan’s Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, Ann Arbor, Mich.
In December 2020, the National Electrical Contractors Association joined a growing number of organizations in forming a DEI task force to ensure these ideas are translated into action and policy. The task force aims to create a long-term cultural shift and a more inclusive electrical industry through education, awareness and open dialogue. This will include DEI-focused trainings, digital resources, webinars, surveys, online classes and other measures.
The 20-person task force is made up of national and chapter staff members and executives from member companies and was put together to ensure representation from across the country and each NECA district.
“It’s diverse not only from a racial standpoint, but from diversity of thought, experiences and people’s backgrounds,” said Wanessa Alves, NECA’s director of partnerships, in a Dec. 7, 2020, video on NECA’s YouTube channel.
One of the first training sessions in 2021 will be a leadership development workshop in February for emerging, entry-level, mid-level and executive-level leaders. Other programs for the year involve coaching and implicit bias classes.
“We hope to empower each and every person—regardless of background, race, gender or any other factor—to succeed and be able to grow in our industry,” said David Long, NECA CEO, in a Dec. 21 press release. “Electrical construction is a truly rewarding career, and we need to join together and ensure this opportunity exists for everybody.”
The association aims to create a long-term cultural shift, “not a flash in the pan, not a one-off program, but a longitudinal impact that affects the industry and our communities truly for generations,” said host David Meade in a Nov. 30 NECA Live video.
Taking the long view
Antiracism efforts specifically will be a long-term effort, said Steve Park, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Little Lights, which “empowers underserved youth, families, and communities in Washington D.C.”
“In trying to create a more just work environment, you’re trying to undo a 400-year history of systemic racism, and that’s not going to be changed overnight. There’s no silver bullet, there’s no quick fix,” Park said.
Changing company culture helps develop organizational future leaders.
“We’re training people for the future of the organization,” said Ronald L. Bailey, NECA vice president of industry development. “Those who are in key positions now can only be in those positions for a certain amount of time. We have to plan how we’ll move forward in the future.”
It’s important for the focus on DEI and workplace betterment to come not just from the top but from all levels of the organization.
“When leaders of the organization start talking about DEI, put structures in place and are willing to make behavioral or cultural shifts, you’re creating a legacy,” Bailey said.
Diversity, equity and inclusion are complex, nuanced issues. NECA is connecting with IBEW and the Electrical Training Alliance on these DEI policies and programs, Alves said.
In August 2020, NECA and IBEW released a statement that said both are “committed to providing and embracing a culture change across the electrical construction industry,” according to the statement. “Equity, inclusion and a workplace that fosters respect, acceptance and is free from discrimination, is critical for ensuring the future of the [industry]. The IBEW and NECA maintain a zero-tolerance policy that is deeply woven into the industry-wide Code and Standard of Excellence.”
Investing in people
DEI has been ingrained in NECA culture for a while, but the task force is indicative of a renewed commitment.
The association is working diligently on DEI because it is an incredible opportunity to make a difference, said Bailey, a retired U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant general.
“We’re going to change the institution and change the lives of individuals who make up the institution. People understand that we as an institution are investing in them. We want them to maximize their leadership potential and what they can contribute,” he said.
In 2009, NECA created Women in NECA (WIN) to encourage women in electrical contracting. WIN supports professional development, encourages women to explore careers in the field, provides educational and networking events and promotes diversity in the industry, according to its webpage.
Enriching the workplace
“Everybody at NECA truly and authentically believes that electrical construction is a richer, more fulfilling career when it’s accessible to absolutely everyone—no matter who you are, where you’re from, your background, your history,” Meade said in the Nov. 30 NECA Live video.
Education is a key element to fostering DEI in the workplace.
For example, Park explained, “It’s important to study the history of systemic racism and to understand why those disparities exist.”
He encourages studying and confronting that history and providing space to have “brave and safe discussions to respond and reflect upon the material.”
Park also noted the value of education as a way to recognize and examine one’s conscious and unconscious biases and learning where they come from.
DEI is critical to creating an inclusive work climate, Alves explained in a NECA Live livestream.
“You need to make sure your employees feel safe to speak and that they feel they belong,” she said. “We need to get comfortable being uncomfortable and learn to listen to understand. Getting educated is key to being able to address these topics.”
Another critical aspect of DEI is diverse recruiting. According to Park, when interviewing people and recruiting, try to draw from a diverse pool and don’t fall into any stereotypes and the prejudices we may have learned growing up.
“[Try] giving people an economic opportunity when maybe others will shy away from it,” Park said, adding that you have to be intentional to promote diversity within an organization.
Bailey was hired in August to lead recruitment programs to bring new, skilled workers into the industry. He is tasked to create executive training programs, expand the scope of workforce development, implement diversity strategies and create partnerships with institutions of higher learning.
Bailey’s work includes a focus on recruiting former-military personnel to NECA member companies and chapter positions.
Ex-military personnel are well-suited for jobs in the electrical industry, Bailey said.
“In the military, there are so many skills and self-starters, who, when given a mission, will do nothing short of accomplishing it,” he said. “That’s the kind of individual we’re looking for. When there’s a devastating storm, guess who goes out [to repair and reconnect service]: people from NECA.”
Bailey said his military background prepared him for his new role. For two years, he led recruiting for the Marines and was tasked with bringing in 40,000 recruits each year.
“I never missed mission,” he said. “I’m going to bring that skill set to NECA and build relationships so we can have a pipeline coming to our institution [from the military and those who leave the armed forces].”
The COVID-19 pandemic has hindered the start of some programs. Recruiting is often an in-person networking experience.
“It’s one thing to do an interview on Zoom, but it’s another when you can get there and talk to a commander face-to-face,” Bailey said.
In the meantime, he is cultivating a list of military members and others who are interested in workforce programs and he hopes that this year, with the vaccine and DEI programming, he will be able to travel to various cities, districts and NECA chapters to follow up.
A lifelong journey
DEI and antiracism are lifelong journeys for companies and individuals.
“Step one is recognizing we need to change,” Bailey said. “And starting with the right attitude, one where you’re concerned for people and their welfare.”
“Step two is defining the problem and gathering data and resources,” he said. “It’s important to get varied opinions and data. Step three is building the plan and sticking with it.”
“This doesn’t happen overnight and this is hard work,” Bailey said. “It takes commitment, courage and a lot of people dedicated to doing the work.”
About The Author
Chertock is a poet and renewable energy and science journalist in the Washington, D.C., area. Contact her at [email protected].