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Local Construction Firms Tackle The Industry's Crucial Diversity Problem

The construction industry is not exactly known for its diverse workforce, but Webcor’s Mei Lin Wolff is hoping to change that. She joined San Francisco-based Webcor in 2015 when women made up only a quarter of the company's workforce and has been pushing to create a more vibrant workforce.

Webcor Senior Vice President of Human Resources Mei Lin Wolff

“It’s been proven that [diversity] boosts creativity, collaboration, innovation and profitability,” said Wolff, Webcor's senior vice president of human resources.

Women now make up 27% of Webcor’s workforce, and 30% of new hires in 2017 were women, according to Wolff, who was promoted in January. Three years ago, 30% of the employee demographic was nonwhite and now 40% of the employee base is people of color, she said. While this is encouraging, she said the company and industry can do better. These minor shifts already put Webcor in the top 10% of the industry for diversity, she said.

Developing A Better Foundation Through Recruitment

Webcor Senior Vice President of Human Resources Mei Lin Wolff with her daughter Skylar, her husband, Mike, and her daughter Makenna during a trip in Paris

Diversifying the workforce starts with better recruitment efforts and making sure recruiters also come from multiple backgrounds, Wolff said. Webcor is diversifying the images and materials it uses on social media as well.

“I think that goes with walking the talk,” she said. “If we go … to a school or recruiting event and talk about diversity and not a single one of our recruiters reflect this, what is the likelihood candidates from diverse backgrounds will take us seriously?”

Webcor also is planning to expand workshops and outreach into local schools to explain the viability of a career in construction. It recently offered a workshop to an all-girls private middle school. Additional workshops would not just focus on young girls, but also diverse communities around the region.

Following recruitment efforts, Webcor changed its hiring process. Wolff said addressing unconscious bias was one of the first steps. Unconscious bias is the tendency to hire someone with similar qualities, hobbies or traits without even realizing it, she said.

Awareness of this bias has allowed for better consideration of differences, she said. Part of Webcor’s hiring now includes having multiple interviews with different people or a team of interviewers in the room to provide more diverse opinions about the new hire.

Building A Better Culture From Within

MBH Architects Studio Director David Delasantos and Teamwrkx President and CEO Eric Venzon

Webcor is not the only regional construction firm changing its hiring practices. San Jose-based Teamwrkx Construction also has a strong emphasis on representing both genders in executive positions, addressing racial relations and civil rights as part of its workforce practice and a commitment to its older workforce while also actively mentoring college-aged new hires, according to Teamwrkx President and CEO Eric Venzon.

The company provides additional support to teammates facing personal issues such as substance addiction, marital challenges and financial stresses, he said.

“Obviously, this strengthens our bonds, but it more so reinforces the culture of commitment to one another and the company we are building in service of our clientele,” Venzon said in an email. “And when we serve each other selflessly, it makes us stronger and more responsive in the service of others.”

Webcor also has been working to create a better workplace culture. While much of the conversation in construction is about improving safety on active construction sites, providing safe office environments for everyone to work in is important, Wolff said.

“We’re creating an environment where differences are valued at all levels of our organization,” she said. “Differences should not just be tolerated, they should be seen as positive and embraced and valued.”

Webcor relaunched its women’s group to provide an additional resource and networking to its staff members.

“[Wolff] has had a huge impact on building employee satisfaction and engagement through strategic steps to ensure our operations [are] transparent, our feedback and growth are an inclusive process, and that employees are supported through development opportunity and benefits,” Webcor President and CEO Jes Pedersen said in a statement.

Growing Diversity Beyond Race, Gender

Oftentimes diversity discussions come down to binary gender and race, but Wolff said it should also include discussions about LGBTQ, neurodiversity and hiring people with physical disabilities and limitations.

“I believe our employee population should reflect the community in which we work,” Wolff said.

Part of increasing diversity means dispelling the typical stereotype that construction is largely physical jobs. She said project management, pre-construction, marketing and business development do not require certain physical capabilities.

She said there is an initial effort underway through a partnership with the Associated General Contractors to rebrand construction to better reflect the kinds of jobs the industry has available. Wolff also has been working with a group of other HR professionals to find better ways to increase diversity.

Webcor created a more diverse project portfolio to ensure that there are jobs available even after the next cyclical downturn. That has meant adding a mix of infrastructure and public projects, such as its work on the Transbay Transit Center and San Francisco General Hospital, instead of being heavily focused on only private development, which tends to slow down during recessions, she said.

Since the industry is about building new communities and creating physical and recognizable impacts, the industry needs to do a better job of explaining why it does what it does, she said.

“At the end of the day the desire to build something greater than yourself and that has an enduring legacy is not a male-specific ambition,” she said. “It’s part of the human condition.”