Everyone Is Welcome: Staying competitive involves achieving workplace diversity

Published On
Feb 15, 2022

On May 20, 2020, a Black female apprentice plumber experienced an overwhelming sense of dread seeing a noose hanging at a construction site in downtown Portland, Ore.

She reported seeing the symbol of Black oppression to her foreman and a foreman for the site’s general contractor. She also contacted a representative from her plumbers’ union.

Three weeks passed with no action taken, so she reached out to Oregon Tradeswomen, a Portland organization that prepares women to enter skilled trades. The group immediately brought the incident to light.

Within days, business agents from several unions, including IBEW 48, were talking with workers at the job site, where an older property was being renovated for a new school of public health to be managed by Oregon Health and Science University and Portland State University.

The Northwest Labor Press reported that Cherry City Electric, a woman-owned business enterprise in Salem, Ore., and its parent company Morrow-Meadows Corp., City of Industry, Calif., flew in a diversity specialist.

The contractors and IBEW members made additional efforts to restore workplace harmony in the Portland area.

Portland’s noose incident happened near the start of the pandemic and just prior to the police killing of George Floyd. It was one of almost 50 incidents occurring at construction sites and in office settings across the United States and Canada since 2015, according to an analysis published by the Washington Post in July 2021.

For years, construction contractors have attempted to follow the law and head off lawsuits involving similarly racially motivated incidents and cases of sexual harassment. But those efforts have not prevented traumatized apprentices from dropping out of programs.

Isis Harris enrolled in the Constructing Hope pre-apprenticeship program in 2013 and completed NECA/IBEW 48's Inside Wireman program in December 2021. She now serves as vice president of the Gus Miller chapter of the Electrical Workers Minority Caucus and sits on the board of directors for the Oregon Tradeswomen. Through outreach efforts involving development of recruitment materials and speaking engagements in a variety of settings including alternative schools, Harris is committed to diversification of the workplace.

Photo courtesy of Andy Dean Photography

The circumstance wastes recruitment and education efforts. It also hampers electrical contractors’ abilities to compete for government, and even private, contracts.

“That has happened,” said Garth Bachman, business manager for IBEW 48. This, despite the local’s history of success with inclusion of minorities and women, starting as early as World War II.

Bachman recently worked with Tim Gauthier, secretary/executive manager of the Oregon-Columbia Chapter NECA, to establish an extended pregnancy leave program aimed at retaining female apprentices, journey-level electricians and other women employed locally by the electrical industry.

As a result of those and other efforts, IBEW 48 claims 15.6% female enrollment in its apprenticeship program. The local also has made impressive strides with minority enrollment, which is at 22%.

Informed by guidelines established by the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, IBEW 48 and its NECA partners regularly collaborate on training program diversity goals and review annual progress.

Results are aligning more closely with demographics of Multnomah County’s minority population, which includes Latinos, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, Native Americans and African Americans, said IBEW 48 workforce development coordinator Bridget Quinn. The same holds true for neighboring Oregon counties.

The local’s diversity success seems related to the fact that for every apprentice recruited, pains are taken to retain them.

“In my role as far as outreach activities and recruitment, I’ve gotten more involved with retention,” Quinn said, who sees a strong correlation between retention and positive workplace culture that supports on-site training and discourages racist, sexist or discriminatory behaviors.

“We’re the start of the pipeline, but we’re seeing there’s more involved to building a diverse workforce than recruiting efforts alone,” Quinn said. “Contractors have a responsibility to provide a safe and respectful environment.”

Kennitha Wade attained journeyman status in 2017 after her apprenticeship at the Oregon-Columbia Local 48 NECA/IBEW Electrical Training Center. She is now a full-time instructor at the center. She is the recording secretary for NECA/IBEW 48 and presides over the Gus Miller chapter of the Electrical Workers Minority Caucus.

Photo courtesy of Dawn Jones Redstone

Quinn and IBEW 48 have implemented anonymous surveys asking apprentices if they feel respected and supported.

“The surveys include questions like, ‘When you’ve been corrected, do you feel the person or supervisor was respectful or disrespectful?’” Quinn said. “This leads to a greater conversation about what’s really happening.”

Quinn, Bachman and Gauthier recently participated in Oregon Tradeswomen’s “Rise Up!” training aimed at eliminating complacency and empowering workers with proper tools for safely reporting demoralizing workplace incidents to management. Their participation showed solidarity and was a response to concerns laid bare by the noose incident.

Like Gauthier, Bachman supports the training.

“You may not be able to change a person’s way of thinking,” he said, “but you can make it clear that their behavior is not acceptable. That goes a long way.”

NECA and IBEW members have also participated in Greendot training, which empowers workers to report sexual harassment.

While the Rise Up! training is fairly new, workforce diversification in the Portland area was going on well before 2020.

“The noose incident accelerated efforts, but we were making strides before that,” said Maurice Rahming, president and co-owner of O’Neill Construction Group of Portland. Rahming, who is Black, established his Oregon-certified minority-business enterprise, an electrical and general contracting firm, with his wife, Ali O’Neill.

Rahming is also a member of NECA’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Task Force, established in December 2020. Their mission is to develop an awareness and education platform to foster a work environment within the electrical industry that supports unique personal differences. Members strive to create a long-term cultural shift on national and local levels, where each person can thrive and be empowered to contribute to overall industry success.

Contractors in the Columbia-Portland region, Rahming said, “are beginning to see the benefits of diversity and that it’s crucial for staying in business.”

Maurice Rahming, president and co-owner of O’Neill Construction Group, has spent years helping other contractors diversify their workforces.

Photo courtesy of O’Neill Construction Group

That circumstance comes about in light of growing numbers of municipal, state, federal and even private construction contracts stipulating demographic percentages of workers reflective of local populations.

“Because you can’t just hire people off the street, because these are skilled jobs and it takes years of training, it can be a challenge to fill these positions,” Bachman said.

For that reason, Quinn coordinates with schools and community colleges to operate IBEW’s pre-apprenticeship programs. She also coordinates IBEW 48’s recruitment efforts with Oregon Tradeswomen, an organization called Girls Build, job fairs and other local organizations.

Besides workplace culture, company imagery also can impact diversification efforts. Because many people don’t know about the apprenticeship process, they first learn about the field by searching for employment on contractor websites, Quinn said.

“Advertising is a powerful tool,” she said. “It can draw minorities and women, or it can portray an existing status quo that discourages diversification. As a woman, if I saw only images of white males in the industry, I would be hesitant about entering the field.”

Meanwhile, the need to replace and grow the workforce continues to ramp up, fueled by the transition to renewable sources of energy and retiring baby boomers.

“What contractor can afford to go without 5%–20% of their workforce?” Rahming said. “Beyond diversification being the right thing to do, contractors are beginning to realize competitive advantages.”

Several years ago, Rahming branched out from diversifying his company’s ranks to helping other contractors do the same.

IBEW 48’s pre-apprenticeship programs, he said, have offered a virtual gateway for enabling contractors to meet municipal and state contract demographic requirements.

IBEW 48 claims 15.6% female and 22% minority enrollment in its apprenticeship program.

Photo courtesy of Dawn Jones Redstone

“Besides allowing people to learn about whether they want to join the industry, whether it’s work they might enjoy, the pre-apprentice program includes CPR and forklift training,” Rahming said. “That training qualifies pre-apprentices as material handlers and gives them highly valued work-site skills. We’ve also found many who come through these programs are very hard workers.”

Those hired also stand a better chance of passing tests, qualifying and being more successful in the apprentice training because they’re motivated to make more money, he said.

Rahming commended IBEW 48’s recruitment efforts, but he makes a practice of urging individual NECA contractors to network with local minority and women organizations and enterprises to get the word out about opportunities in the industry.

Thanks to Rahming’s and O’Neill’s networking efforts, their company has grown from a two-person electrical contracting enterprise to a general contracting firm employing 60–70 workers. O’Neill Construction Group provides electrical, masonry, carpentry and construction management services.

 Having worked as a journeyman electrician, foreman and general foreman, Rahming was appointed by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber to the SAIF board of directors in 2014. SAIF is Oregon’s not-for-profit workers’ compensation insurance company.

Rahming worked with Multnomah County to set up a countywide legal summit on Disadvantaged Business Enterprise use. In addition to being in the National Association of Minority Contractors Hall of Fame, he serves as chair of the Metropolitan Alliance for Workforce Equity, chair of Unite Oregon Action, vice president of Portland Youth Builders board of directors, board member for Worksystems Inc., board member for Professional Business Development Group and as a member of the City of Portland’s Development Review advisory committee.

O’Neill also has served on the Oregon Workforce Investment Board, as treasurer for Oregon Tradeswomen and on the board of Wayfinding Academy.

Ali O’Neill, operations manager and co-owner of O’Neill Construction Group, founded the company with her husband, Maurice Rahming.

Photo courtesy of O’Neill Construction Group

Beyond networking with local organizations, O’Neill Construction Group formed a partnership with Walsh Construction in 2011 to share resources and competencies.

Given the successes he has witnessed with diversification, Rahming sees no limit to the change others can achieve in the industry.

“Some contractors act as if diversifying is a burden,” he said. “But what we’ve found is that, with greater diversity, everyone starts to feel welcome. There’s a level of acceptance for everyone, and the job site is generally a happier place to work. People find it easier to work together and get more done.”

About the Author
Susan DeGrane

Susan DeGrane

Susan DeGrane is a Chicago-based freelance writer. She has covered electrical contracting, renewable energy, senior living and other industries with articles published in the Chicago Tribune, New York Times and trade publications. Reach her at sdegra...

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