2021 Business Benchmarks: Workforce
Workforce: Overcoming gaps in diversity and inclusion
Bret Weiss, President and CEO, WSB
Over the last five years, there is no topic that Minnesota employers have discussed more than workforce. Many struggled to find enough workers, with the right skills, in the right location, who can fulfill their business needs.
WSB, a Minneapolis-based design and consulting firm with offices throughout Minnesota and three other states, took steps last year toward tackling these workforce challenges and creating a workforce pipeline for the long-term.
It all started by identifying a challenge in their industry: a low number of women and people of color entering the engineering field. “In 2016, only 21% of engineering bachelor’s degrees were earned by women, and 26% by people of color,” says Bret Weiss, President and CEO of WSB.
Why is that a problem? “More diverse companies are more successful in every way,” says Weiss. He notes their work serves communities where diverse populations live and work. “We support many communities with road challenges or utility issues or public engagement needs. Our services and products are better when we have staff who understand communities’ goals and objectives.”
In 2019, WSB launched “Opportunity+,” a program to give participants practical skills in the basics of engineering. A cohort of nine for whom tech schools were too expensive or those who may work during the day, received 200 hours of training from WSB staff. They learned work readiness, engineering basics and about concrete and soil, measuring and surveying. Even though COVID-19 sidelined their in-person training last spring, they gained a greater understanding of the basic elements of engineering and working for a firm like WSB and industry partners.
This Opportunity+ cohort can stand as a model for others in their industry, and for the business community as a whole. According to Weiss, their hope is to create role models in the communities they serve, to spur more interest and legitimacy in jobs in the industry.
“Many of us in the industry have hidden behind the fact that the universities haven’t produced enough diverse talent. I’m not going to blame someone else,” Weiss says. “I’m going to do something about it. Every little bit counts.”
Where does Minnesota rank?
The COVID-19 pandemic is greatly impacting Minnesota’s workforce. Some indicators show improvement, like labor participation remaining near the top of the nation. Both domestic migration and international immigration are holding steady and unlikely to change until the pandemic subsides, allowing employees to move locations again. Indicators in the education system – reading and test scores – show far too much disparity between white students and students of color. Considering the demographic changes in Minnesota’s future, this achievement gap must improve to grow and keep a skilled workforce in Minnesota.