Walk the walk: When it comes to building diverse workforce, next generation won’t settle for talk

The Resolution Issue: 2020

By Brett Johnson
Newark | Jan 28, 2020 at 6:15 am
From our print edition

Several years ago, U.S. Census Bureau data called attention to the fact that, by 2020, more than half of the nation’s under-18 population was expected to identify with a minority group.

That year has arrived … and faster than some companies apparently expected, according to workforce diversity expert Arthur Langer.

“With Generation Z, we for the first time have a population that is not predominantly white in our country,” he said. “Yet, many companies are still risk-averse (when it comes to diverse hiring). But, if you’re not a diverse company, you’re not representing the population. And that especially goes for a company in a place like Newark — where, if you don’t have Hispanic workers, African Americans or Portuguese, you just can’t say you represent the community.”

Why is it important that your business resolve to better represent the community? Companies that don’t are going to be challenged by companies that do, Langer said. And ethnically diverse companies are likely to outperform others, according to the think-tank group McKinsey Global Institute.

What’s more, some of the biggest and most successful New Jersey businesses don’t need to make a New Year’s resolution to avoid running afoul of this. They’ve already done it.

Through his global organization, Workforce Opportunity Services, Langer has spent years bolstering the diversity of the workforce at Prudential, Johnson & Johnson, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, Merck and other Garden State corporations.

For an example of how it works, look no farther than the organization’s current program with Public Service Enterprise Group. Through a partnership, the energy company is recruiting future software developers from marginalized communities, and the around 50 individuals enrolled have the opportunity to become full-time PSEG employees.

Langer, a Columbia University professor who himself comes from a poor neighborhood in the Bronx, founded Workforce Opportunity Services back in 2005. The nonprofit was built in response to Langer’s research finding that public institutions and organizations in the nonprofit sector weren’t providing effective enough offerings to help companies cultivate more inclusive workplaces.

“There are a lot of efforts to encourage diversity and inclusion, and that’s important,” he said. “But it has to go beyond that. It has to be something where a business owner can say: ‘Wow, this is a good deal. Not only do I get diversity and inclusion, but I also get a great deal on talent we can retain.’”

Langer’s organization absorbs the risks associated with any hiring effort by acting as the employer. That includes the responsibility of training workers, which it does in partnership with the nation’s higher education institutions. 

It also handles the buying of clothing, transportation, housing or any other impediments to a worker from an underserved community excelling at a job.

“And we believe this has been a successful approach — for us and the businesses we partner with,” Langer said. “Our retention is 90% at a time when young people don’t want to work for banks or companies like Prudential, they want to work for Google.”

Whether it’s through his nonprofit or other initiatives, Langer expects to see more companies discovering this oft-overlooked talent pipeline in the coming years. Most don’t have a choice, Langer added, considering that many industries are having a difficult time finding employees willing to fill certain jobs. 

At the same time, there’s only about another 20 years until the youth population reshapes the entire U.S. demographic to being more than half composed of minorities.

And, for as much as diversity has been discussed — perhaps even boasted about — by businesses over the past decade, the generation marking a historic shift in 2020 won’t be pleased with resting on laurels.

“A lot of companies are checking off the boxes, saying, ‘We hired this many African Americans this year,’ but that’s not the ultimate systemic solution for these things,” Langer said. “It’s nice to be nice once, twice or even three times … but being nice isn’t a systemic change.”

Conversation Starter

Reach Workforce Opportunity Services at: info@wforce.org or 212-870-2260.