The Importance of Recruiting A Diverse Workforce, with Lakisha Ann Woods, President & Chief Executive Officer, National Institute of Building Sciences

Edited Highlights from EEBA Summit presentation, Sept.14, 2021

The Importance of Recruiting A Diverse Workforce, with Lakisha Ann Woods, President & Chief Executive Officer, National Institute of Building Sciences

Today, I will talk about the importance of recruiting a diverse workforce. My goal is to end this conversation with clear, actionable goals for everyone. We want to have a plan in place. I think that's what’s so important. I want to tell you about some of our learning objectives today. Of course, we'll review the data because I always say, "the numbers don't lie." We must look at what statistics tell us, and that will guide us in the direction of where we need to make a change.

We really have to increase our awareness of our unconscious bias…how we can move from those biases and find tools to help us be more successful? It's important not just to set an action plan, that your board or your company will say this is our plan and then, four years later, no one's touched that plan. You want something that's a living document that you can continue to focus on, reassess, reinvent, and move the needle.

…When I was at the Association of General Contractors, my job was to look at businesses that had popped up in the middle of the .com boom. I was supposed to look at what tools were most important for the industry because the commercial construction companies were being bombarded with .coms saying. “This is what you need, this is what you need.” And what I discovered was that, oh, that's right, the construction industry is very slow to innovate sometimes. When I was meeting with one of our members, he said, “you know, when you go to New York City, look up and recognize that all those buildings were built by fax machines, and it was 30 years before people could even accept that one piece of technology.” They wanted me to realize that when you're talking about change and disruption in this industry, you must recognize the history and celebrate small advancements, and those small wins.

…If you're thinking about how your business can evolve, grow, change, and innovate, that comes from the diversity of thought. Diversity of thought can be with people who look just like you but, more likely, life experiences impact how you perceive things, how you view a business, how you view a product or service. Those experiences come from different people in different circumstances, different genders, different races, etc. that truly bring a diversity of thought which will change how your company operates.

… I want you to know that right from the beginning when I talk about diversity and inclusion, and equity, my number one priority is diversity in leadership, not just diversity in the lower rank positions within an organization. And that is so important.

…The choices that companies make today will have consequences on gender equity for decades. When you think of an industry that’s dominated by men, you think about construction. As of 2021, Department of Labor data shows that women comprise 10.6% (of those employed in the construction industry) while women generally make up 47% of the available workforce. There's much opportunity to find new people (who are) out there waiting for you. Women 47% of all occupations, and then construction and extraction occupations, specifically

…By August of 2021, there were only two major industries with more women on payroll than before COVID: construction, and utilities. Women in construction jobs, grew by 30,000 jobs, and in utilities by 1300 and all other major sectors are still below February 2020 levels, and that's as of August of this year. We know that our workforce will need 430,000 new jobs this year alone just. Although it's great that women in the industry grew by 30,000 jobs, we’ve still got much work. It's going to take an intentional effort to recruit women into the space. The Institute for Women's Policy Research 2021 Tradeswomen Retention and Advancement survey found that half of all women working in the trades say they're thinking about leaving their jobs for two reasons: harassment and discrimination, it’s not just that we must recruit a more diverse workforce; we have to change the culture. Because the culture is what really, truly makes a difference in keeping, retaining, and growing your workforce.

We have to talk about those nasty biases. And I think I, sometimes I’ll talk to my friends, and they're like, “I don't even want to hear the word unconscious bias again …I've heard it, and I don't want to be beaten up anymore,” and that's not what it's about. I like to give examples that are non-racially charged because they're all just biases. For example, I went to the University of Maryland and when I was working at my previous job, my boss asked me at one point, “why is it that everybody you hire went to the University of Maryland?”

I had to ask myself if I'm looking at two resumes and one person went to Duke, and one person went to Maryland, who do I want to interview? Now, I’ve overcome my bias but there are many tools that companies can access to help them recognize biases that they may not even think they have. That's why it's called unconscious bias. You don't recognize that you go, “oh, this person went to my school,” or “oh, this person is from my neighborhood.”

What tools do we have in place to help look for different characteristics? I think that it’s essential for us to create a standards matrix, whether you're running an individual company a small company. The question is, how are you going to recruit new people from outside of your area intentionally? And who's on your staff team to do that recruitment? Do they look different than the people that are currently in leadership? If somebody is in high school, and they're trying to think about whether they should go into the trades, but they don’t see anyone who looks like them, they don't think they have a place there. There's no career. If people don't see others like them in leadership, they don't have a place. It's important for us to be aware of that and talk about that and to change that. It’s essential that people think about how to celebrate successes.

…As we talk about bringing women into the space or women in leadership, part of the challenge is not just that it's hard to get women recruited into leadership roles. Once women are in leadership roles, we've found that they don't want to share their knowledge because they don't want to toot their own horn. We talked about being “the only”. What are you as a female leader doing to recruit other women into the space? And sometimes, if you're fighting for that one spot, then you kind of keep it to yourself because there's not room for more, or there's not a mindset or an exception to allow more women or more minorities in this space.

It’s changing everybody's mindset, right? It's not just, oh, we need men to understand this. We need men; we need women. We need everybody to understand our own biases that we have, both men and women, and what we can do to make improvements…

…As we talked about taking steps and being intentional about diversity, the next thing that we did in the wake of George Floyd and everything that happened in 2020, we received many phone calls, what are you? What are you doing, NIBS? You’re the convener. What are we doing to solve this? Many companies put out letters of support about how each company is different and accepts all people. And that's great. You need to say that. It is a step you must take. But suppose your next step isn't looking at the makeup of your leadership team and looking at the makeup of your volunteer leadership team. In that case, you're everything that you're an association or your company; it is really taking a hard look at who you are. What we did was convened the industry once again in December of 2020, we brought together CEOs from most of the major construction-related associations, and Aaron from EBA was here with us. We also all invited the NAACP and various associations that represent minority segments of the building industry to have an open conversation. We shared data that we had collected from the various groups to share best practices, etc. It was exciting to hear from the gentleman who represented Asian engineers, and he said, “well, I'm representing people from 40 different countries. You say ‘Asian’, but that is a really broad term.”

Let's unpack this. What are this person’s needs versus that person’s? It's not cut and dry. It's not black and white. But we do have to build awareness of the differences that people have, the challenges they have, and then how do we, as an industry, try to make improvements.

At the end of the day, what came out of that session was the need for more data. We wanted to find out where we stood as an industry. And in February, we worked with Avenue M group, Denver based company and we conducted a survey. Our goal was to start with this one survey and send it every year because you can't track if you're improving the workforce if you don't know your baseline. I received exciting feedback from consultants who said they've talked to organizations where they don't want their employees to be surveyed because there's nothing wrong and there are no reasons for their employees to receive this survey. Things could be great for your employees and there's no better way to know if they're great than by asking them and letting them submit their answers confidentially to a third party because that's how we're going to know how we're making improvements. But again, it's steps that we take.

…Our survey of the NIBS association members who participated in the survey results showed 59% of our respondents have been working in the industry for more than 20 years. 65% of the respondents were men, and 28% were women. Now, that's a high number (compared to the construction industry at large) but that's all these are members of an association and women are also more likely to find a home within an association and a voice within a network... 74% were white. And again, that was pretty expected data. And 81% of the survey respondents have a bachelor's degree or higher, which again, if you're, if we get a broader audience, and we could get more tradespeople into this, you're going to see that number drop, but that's fine. We want them to go to a trade school like we did; everybody doesn't need to get a four-year degree. They're great careers, just get your training, and come and be a part of this industry. That's what makes it wonderful.

66% of women respondents indicated that they had experienced discrimination or prejudice in the built environment based on gender. As you can imagine, and I think those that had those that were a part of a minority group, or a gender difference, those people did feel that they had experienced bias in the industry, they experienced discrimination, whether it's because of their gender, their race, and they thought it was keeping them from growing in the space. 65% of the respondents said it is important to increase the diversity of the built environment.

…How do we move forward? And I think the big piece is engaging with others and developing best practices. What can we all do together today? And by today, I mean, today. We've asked all our organizations to sign on to agree on a few things. For example, there is a website called, where over 2000 organizations have signed on to commit to cultivating a trusting workplace and having those difficult and uncomfortable conversations which we all need to have. They agreed to implement or expand unconscious bias education and share best practices and things that didn't work that they tried to do. And then they also talked about creating strategic inclusion and diversity plans with their board of directors or their equivalent governing bodies.

Now, many organizations created a plan. Many organizations wrote all DEI statements; these are all steps that we need to take. But I thought, instead of us creating our call to action, we could one, just sign on to this one that 2000 other companies did. And what was great about this, this resource that's been created is that they already have best practices on their site; they already have tools for unconscious bias education. So, if you're a small company, and you can't afford to hire a diversity consultant, all you do is sign on to this pledge and download the content you need. It’s free, and it's available, it costs nothing, it just says, “I'm going to make a verbal commitment to do something, to try to try to make a change.”

At the end of the day, these are the three primary goals that we need for every association CEO and preferably every CEO of any company in this industry, to agree to. These are: to commit to building diverse leadership teams, on your staff, or in your volunteer leadership; to commit to sharing best practices, it costs you nothing; and to promote this work within your association membership.

If you're an association or a company, encourage the association you're a member of to do this. That is what is important. And this call to action, it's saying you're going to commit. It's not saying you're going to fire your leadership team tomorrow, and all of a sudden bring on new diverse staff; it just means that when someone is rolling off the board, or you need to create a new position, or somebody is retiring, you’re going to be intentional about recruiting diverse talent into those leadership roles. That is all we're asking.

…And I, really, really hope that at the end of September, I can share with all our colleagues this great list of organizations that have agreed to these three primary goals because if we don't make these kinds of commitments, then all the words and all the reports, and all the statements mean nothing. If you're not going to act, you’re not going to change how you do business and bring diverse talent into your leadership team. It’s just talking.

And I feel it is my responsibility as a convener to make sure that our industry is more successful. And to be there, we must take action. And I will say to all of the people who are diverse or feel like they're the odd person out in the room, they don't always see someone who looks like them. Whether that room is virtual or in person. Embrace your uniqueness.

…Someone said in one of our meetings, “if there is no one else in the room that looks like you, consider it a superpower and learn how to let other people know that you're approachable. Connect and make people feel more empowered to learn from you and meet and recruit more people like you. And that is important.

…If I had sat in a corner at any of my previous jobs and just kept my head down, I wouldn't have met the amazing people who are part of this industry. Having had the opportunity to work with the subcontractor, the general contractor, the home builder, and now the whole built environment is amazing to me. This was the natural evolution of my role to be here in this organization.
I have seen change and depending on which organization meeting I attend, I see more and more young people, I see more women, and I see more minorities. It may be slow but again, I just say in my head, “fax machine”, and then I remember that we're going to get there, and it may take 30 years. If we can make more than point 4% increase in 30 years that would be fantastic. Let's be wild and crazy. And if we can make that kind of change, I think we're going to make a difference. And it's just again, recognizing those various biases that we have recognized and how we can be more inclusive. And again, look around the table every time you're deciding. Look around the table.


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