Building the Talent Pipeline With DE&I
Like the power of cataclysmic events to reshape the natural world, the pandemic that continues to hover in the background of our social landscape provides us an opportunity to make positive change and reimagine the workplace. The shape of that change will be defined by the need to address problems of diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I), but at the same time can support the drive to find a competitive advantage as global economies heat up, companies compete for workers in a tight labor market and business and manufacturing return to prepandemic levels.
Building the talent pipeline and creating a successful retention culture are imperatives that must take place on two levels. One is providing the skills training to help workers succeed and compete in an increasingly complex, digital environment and the other is creating diverse, inclusive workplaces that stress the importance of work-life balance and provide a more level playing field where all employees are able to thrive and contribute to business outcomes.
In one recent example, Google announced an initiative to create a US$100 million fund to provide digital education, as well as coaching in soft or power skills, along with social support like childcare and career coaching, to help those without four-year degrees compete in the modern workplace. Angelina Howard, a PMI Future 50 leader and 2022 “Global Megatrends” report contributor, has been on the leading edge of this type of initiative through her work at another tech giant, the U.S. based e-tailer Amazon.
Although this renewed focus on change comes in response to labor shortages and protest movements, Howard stresses that real progress in DE&I must extend beyond current events. “I think the key barrier to real change is that companies have to actually want to change,” Howard says. “When the news cycle was there, people were making a lot of splash and pushing out different initiatives. But once people moved on to different things, there's not such a strong magnifying glass on what the companies are doing, and they have found other things they want to focus on. The other part is that some companies are opposed to change. They feel that they have always done things the same way and until those companies know the true value of DE&I, you’re not going to see sustainable change.”
As companies are spurred to compete for workers, there is growing acknowledgment that change can be good for business too. As Howard explains, “If you're hiring people but your culture is not inclusive, they’re not going to perform as well because they’re not going to be happy and then they will eventually leave, so you should first make sure that you have the right culture in place.”
Howard, also an adjunct professor at the University of Arkansas and on the board of directors for the University of Washington’s Product Management Center, acknowledges the importance of initiatives to create outreach to youth while they are still in school. Particularly for companies seeking to fill jobs in project-management-oriented employment (PMOE), Howard says it is valuable “not just to show up on career day, but to embed yourself into the curriculum to make sure students gain the skills needed.” Howard recalls, “I didn't know what a software engineer was when I was in high school, and so it would have been great if I knew there was a career path, but not everyone is exposed to that. So how can companies help fill that gap? I think it is going to schools and being a part of different organizations that are focused on students, like Rainier Scholars in Seattle and national organizations like Junior Achievement and Big Brother.”
Recruitment is only the first step. Companies must create inclusive cultures that encompass social impact initiatives and provide greater recognition for employee contributions. Howard is the former president and currently an advisor for BEN, the Black Employee Network at Amazon, set up to recruit, retain and empower Black employees. BEN is one of 13 affinity groups, also called employee resource groups, set up to create community and support employees across business units and locations. BEN grants scholarships, provides donations to organizations that support education and social justice and organizes Startup Week, a virtual conference founded in 2017 for networking and sharing resources with Black professionals, entrepreneurs and small businesses. More recently, Howard launched a program called Rise to provide mentoring and sponsorship to help propel Black employees into executive roles.
Setting, tracking and enforcing DE&I goals must start at the top and be conducted with the same rigor as other business goals. But Howard says middle managers are the key to making sure these goals are met. “It's really the middle manager — assistant managers — who are actually managing these employees, so most of the onus falls on them,” she says. “It's for the senior leaders to make sure that those managers are being reviewed per these goals, but their treatment of employees relies on those managers.” For PMOE, that means project managers, project leaders, program managers and product managers.
As businesses return to the office and employees reassess their roles and relationships, providing a workspace that is inclusive will take on greater importance for attaining business results. “A lot of people, especially women and people of color,” Howard observes, “are specifically talking about how the pandemic opened their eyes to ‘If my company supports me as a person’ and ‘Do I feel like that workspace is inclusive?’ They feel safer working at home, where they don't feel like they are judged as much. There are people who may not have as strong an affinity to their companies as they did before, because a lot of employees say, ‘It's the people that make me want to work here.’ Now that community is essentially lost by working remotely, there are other factors that people are looking into, such as location and higher pay, and many have made career changes when they did not feel their current employer was providing an inclusive space.”
It is certain that the nature of the workplace will change shape — the ways in which companies are able to attract and retain talent and foster affinity will be a significant factor in determining their success moving forward.