Champions of Diversity Discuss the Importance—and Benefits—of a More Inclusive Construction Industry

Like many young African-American men in Baltimore, Jeff Hargrave encountered his fair share of bad distractions followed by bad decisions. When it came time to stop getting in trouble and start working, he faced two job prospects: driving a delivery truck for $7.50 an hour or becoming a carpenter for $5.25 an hour.

“Even though the delivery driver job meant more money, I didn’t feel there was much of a future so I decided to go with the carpentry apprenticeship,” Hargrave says.

HargraveLooking back after more than 30 years in the construction industry, it was the first of several wise decisions Hargrave made. At one point in his career, he followed a mentor from his first employer to a newly formed firm, where for seven years he gained experience running projects as a lead foreman. Ready to venture out on his own, he established Baltimore-based Mahogany, Inc. in 1991 as a subcontractor specializing in architectural millwork.

Tremendous growth followed—with annual sales reaching $12 million to $15 million—bolstered by a mentorship with Whiting-Turner. About eight years ago, health care facilities in the Mid-Atlantic began expressing interest in working with minority contractors, but they didn’t think any local firms had enough experience. Whiting-Turner stepped in and took Mahogany, Inc. under its wing, teaching Hargrave about hospital protocol and the actions required in a health care environment.

“They introduced me to the facility personnel at different hospitals and we started working with them on health care projects,” Hargrave says. “Because of that opportunity, we have been able to do general contracting work in Queen Anne’s County and at Johns Hopkins Hospital.”

Today, the firm has about 75 employees with a diversity of backgrounds—some of whom have made mistakes similar to Hargrave as a young adult. He coordinates with organizations such as JumpStart, the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Living Classrooms Foundation to identify, recruit and train job candidates from disadvantaged communities. Hargrave also is 2014 chairman of the Baltimore Metro Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors.

“You have to get connected to your city,” he says. “If you’re connected, good people will find your company.”

For Hargrave, diversity is all about opportunity. For example, 12 years ago a man came to Mahogany, Inc. with a criminal record and a desire to work hard. Hargrave took a chance, and now that employee is a seasoned foreman.

“It’s important that we try to give young individuals who may have been incarcerated opportunities to grow and learn,” Hargrave says. “A lot of times employers look at a résumé and discount individuals who have been arrested. But if employers aren’t going to hire them, then the street is bound to ‘hire’ them for drug deals and robberies.

“We haven’t been successful with everyone we’ve brought in,” he adds, “but who can say that everybody they’ve hired has worked out?”

Not only does this approach help turn lives around, but it benefits the business, too. Having a diverse workforce allows Mahogany, Inc. to look at things from a different, more well-rounded perspective. When a tough situation arises, Hargrave can run the issues by a variety of people to get a better feel for how the company should react.

“We believe in diversity, and when you believe in something, it’s not all that challenging,” Hargrave says. “The more successful Americans are as a whole, the better America will be. We’re still working toward the day we can forget about race and just look at a person for what his or her skill is.”

The same could be said on a macro business scale. Mahogany, Inc. has been around for 23 years, with a track record of completing quality work at the Pentagon, National Institutes of Health, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, University of Maryland and Baltimore Hilton. Yet, the firm largely remains on the “minority list.” In other words, Hargrave usually only gets a call when minority participation requirements are in play.

“The short list is the list you want to be on, but it’s hard to get on that list as a minority contractor,” he says. “The longer we’re in business and the more contractors can get familiar with our capabilities, the closer we’ll get to being recognized for our skills and being a good firm rather than just our ‘minority’ title.”

Hargrave is doing his best to further this message with local non-competing businesses. For example, one cleaning company he mentors has been able to secure new work due to the introductions Hargrave made around town and through trade organizations.

“I like helping people because someone helped me. I just want them to be successful,” Hargrave says. “I truly believe the more you give back, the more you get back.”

A Small Company With a Large Presence
Ann McNeill takes a similar approach as owner of Miami-based MCO Construction & Services, Inc., which has about 20 employees and specializes exclusively in government work. Not only does she regularly hire interns and give them exposure to different aspects of the profession, but she also works tirelessly to connect young African-American women with career opportunities as founder of the National Association of Black Women in Construction (NABWIC).

McNeillMcNeill’s own journey to the industry stemmed from a comment her husband made as they reviewed the hourly rates for electrical and roofing renovation work being done on their home: “If I had to do it all over again,” he said, “I wouldn’t go to college. I would go to trade school.”

With her entrepreneurial spirit piqued, McNeill decided to enroll in a local construction trade program while logging 40 hours per week at a job and getting her master’s degree. In 1993, the timing was right to leave her corporate job and start MCO Construction to fulfill the void of minority-owned firms bidding on government construction contracts under Miami-Dade County’s set-aside program.

For the past 20 years, McNeill’s goal has been to create a pipeline of opportunities for other African-American women in the construction industry. “Young black girls won’t relate to construction if they can’t see themselves in this role,” she says. “When we model what success looks like, people are coming out in droves. It is important to educate people on what’s possible in the industry.”

Through NABWIC, which has about 100 members, McNeill encourages African-American girls in middle school, high school and college to study science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), as well as construction.

“You’d be surprised how many black women under age 30 hold a general contractor’s license, or are trained architects and engineers, but are working in non-construction jobs because they haven’t had an opportunity to make connections in the industry,” she says. “Our role is to create opportunities for black women to grow.”

She does the same for a diverse group of employees through MCO Construction. One intern started out as a ninth-grader from a magnet school who was interested in computers and technology. Over the years of being exposed to the company, she decided to get an undergraduate and master’s degree in architecture and now works full time on three MCO Construction projects. “That type of career trajectory is typical for us,” McNeill says.

McNeill is generous with the talent she helps develop as well. “If another firm wants to diversify its staff by hiring one of my interns or employees, I say absolutely. I see my firm as a funnel,” she says. “People do business with people that they know, like and trust—in that order. We create opportunities for the industry to know, like and trust diverse people.”

For contractors interested in doing more to diversify their workforce, McNeill recommends looking to corporate leaders such as Turner Construction and Hensel Phelps for examples of model internship and hiring programs. She also suggests becoming involved with diverse associations, such as NABWIC, the National Association of Minority Contractors, Women Construction Owners & Executives, and the National Association of Women in Construction.

“You don’t want to hire people because you feel forced to, whether it’s an individual, subcontractor or supplier,” McNeill says. “These organizations give you an opportunity to get to know people and firms. They may not have the most financing or bonding, but they are dependable and offer a good service, so it’s worth giving them a try. That is often the beginning of a long relationship.”

McNeill speaks from experience. Twenty years ago, she met an estimator for Turner Construction via the American Society of Professional Estimators. During a job at Miami International Airport, Turner then introduced McNeill to Baker Concrete. Two decades later, MCO Construction has worked with Baker Concrete on a variety of projects, including at the Miami Marlins baseball stadium and Miami Intermodal Center.

“Every job I’ve gotten is because of a relationship built over time,” McNeill says. “Many contracts are narrowly won because of diversity. Owners want to know that you’re not just meeting contract requirements, but that the makeup of your everyday staff i inclusive. It is a competitive edge, especially if projects are in urban areas.”

Valuable Investments
That diversity-induced competitive advantage extends beyond the jobsite to business partners, such as law firms, that support the industry.

“The reality is that corporations are much further along than law firms in terms of diversity,” says Emery Harlan, founding member and chairman of the Milwaukee office of Gonzalez Saggio & Harlan LLP. “Many corporations that hire outside counsel are very sensitive to making sure they are being represented by firms with great diversity track records. It’s a way to distinguish ourselves from our competitors.
“It has very real, practical benefits in addition to being the right thing to do,” he says.

Before coming together in the late 1980s, most of the principals of Gonzalez Saggio & Harlan LLP worked at large  non-minority law firms with limited diversity and few promotional opportunities. Their goal was to create a workplace where all attorneys are supported and can go as far as their talent will allow them to go.

In practice, this means broadly communicating job openings rather than relying on word of mouth to increase the chances of attracting more diverse applicants. Harlan recommends reaching out to historically black universities and associations geared toward women, Asians and Hispanics. Today, 82 percent of Gonzalez Saggio & Harlan LLP’s ownership is comprised of minorities and women, and 65 percent of attorneys are women and/or minorities.

“Once you decide diversity is important, it’s not that hard to be really thoughtful and strategic about hiring decisions,” Harlan says. “If you do that, people will hear about you and get the sense you’re a company that is truly open to diversity. Over time, the idea of inclusion will take root.”

Another valuable action item is to get involved in associations whose members are from different fields and backgrounds, and attend any educational events these organizations host on diversity best practices. Harlan helped found the National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, which has more than 120 members and hundreds of corporate and public partners. The Defense Research Institute has proven to be another good avenue for networking and diversity programing.

It’s important to get staff involved in the outreach, not just leadership. For example, Gonzalez Saggio & Harlan LLP has invested thousands of dollars in an attorney in its Indianapolis office in order to expand his network of contacts among in-house lawyers with major corporations and help him build a reputation outside the city.

The firm also invests heavily in getting its attorneys involved in community groups to help raise their profiles and make them more knowledgeable about the cities they serve. “We’re different from a typical firm motivated by how many hours you can bill,” Harlan says. “There are short-term sacrifices with these kinds of expenditures and giving up billable hours, but it’s in our long-term best interest to make sure our employees are engaged in the community and well-rounded. It helps them acquire skills to make them successful in their careers.”

A United Approach to Diversity

United Rentals was one of five construction companies to win a 2013 National Diversity Excellence Award from Associated Builders and Contractors. Following are some highlights of its exemplary record of diversity.

Leadership commitment:
According to Craig Pintoff, senior vice president of human resources, diversity has been a core part of United Rentals’ human capital strategy for the last decade. And it’s not just about meeting hiring goals—though it does that well, with 12.2 percent of hires being Hispanic, 7.1 percent African-American, 12 percent female and 13 percent veteran. It’s also about how the company portrays itself externally to customers and communities and how it creates a more inclusive environment internally for employees.

United Rentals sets annual percentage goals that go beyond affirmative action compliance in the areas of diverse hiring, retention and promotion. The goals are presented each month to the board of directors (35 percent of whom are diverse), and regional executives are held accountable for attaining them. “It would be crazy if we hired minorities aggressively and then had high turnover,” Pintoff says. “I want our retention of diverse employees to mirror the rest of our workforce, and I’m glad to say it does.”

Opportunities to grow: Every summer, United Rentals goes through a talent assessment process to see who would be a good fit for its LIFT program, which targets high-potential employees who could be a district manager or director in the next three to five years. About 50 people participate annually, and nearly half of them are minorities. Participants are paired with an executive-level mentor and meet twice a year for in-depth training on leadership traits and how to manage teams. They also receive projects to work on and participate in monthly calls with existing leaders. “The goal is to give these potential leaders the tools to get to the next level,” Pintoff says. “We’re on our fourth cohort, and it’s starting to create tangible results. About one-quarter of participants have been promoted into different roles.” Overall, of United Rentals’ nearly 2,089 management employees, 26 percent are female, minorities or veterans.

Meaningful training: Even though United Rentals rolled out a diversity inclusion program four years ago, Pintoff is already finalizing a new round of broader training. The challenge is to make it engaging, rather than employees feeling like it’s just another requirement. “You need to give them a skill they can actually use,” he says. “What really resonates is that everyone wants to be part of a team. Our best branches have a great team environment.” Additionally, all employees have access to a full catalog of online courses to help them develop a career path.

Veteran outreach:
On top of paying military employees during active duty deployments and supporting reserve training commitments, United Rentals partners with Workforce Opportunity Services, which caters to veterans transitioning to civilian jobs. Two of the company’s training centers bring in nearly 100 veterans per year who go through a rigorous 16-week program to become mechanics. They are paid during the program, and upon graduation they have access to jobs across United Rentals’ extensive network of offices. The company also is a member of the Military Spouse Employment Partnership. “It’s hard for military spouses—95 percent of whom are women—to go from base to base and find jobs. Companies like ours that have big footprints can accommodate people who move around a lot,” Pintoff says.

Joanna Masterson is editor of Construction Executive. For more information, email or follow @ConstructionMag.