Diversity In Construction: Why it Matters & Tips for Leaders

by Tonia Dunbar   |   April 22, 2022

How to Get Started With Your Construction DEI Journey

It’s no surprise that the construction industry isn’t very diverse. But there is a cultural shift underway regarding diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI.

Diversity, equity and inclusion at its most basic concept means truly accepting, supporting and including the full range of human differences, including but not limited to race, ethnicity, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, age, social class, physical abilities, religious or ethical values systems, national origins and political beliefs.

Trimble and others understand that the construction industry must take action to recruit, retain and advance diverse talent.

Research indicates that companies that prioritize diversity outperform others; they have greater earnings, better governance, greater innovation and more opportunities.

Research indicates that companies that prioritize diversity outperform others; they have greater earnings, better governance, greater innovation and more opportunities, according to CREW Network’s annual study, which in 2020 began asking questions about diversity. Although its study centers on commercial real estate firms, it’s become a common belief that any company that does not prioritize DEI will be left behind. They will miss the talent and the opportunity to be more profitable.

In this blog, Tonia Dunbar, Director of Professional Services at Trimble and a board member for the Trimble Foundation Fund, discusses the impacts of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) on the construction industry and offers suggestions on how others can get started with their DEI journey.

1. What does diversity, equity and inclusion in construction mean to you—and how does Trimble support this initiative in the workplace?

Diversity equity inclusion is extremely important to me as a black female leader in the space of software and more specifically in the construction industry. “If we didn't have things such as DEI, I wouldn't have the opportunities that I have today,” says Tonia Dunbar, Director of Professional Services at Trimble and a board member for the Trimble Foundation Fund. “Historically, and even currently, people of minority ethnicities are underrepresented in many industries, but vastly underrepresented in construction.”

African American Architect

DEI helps drive the impact of having diverse thought, diverse representation and helping inadvertently drive businesses. “As the chair of the black professional network, which is one of our employee resource networks within Trimble, we have many that represent various groups, or underrepresented groups, not only from an ethnic background, but from other representation backgrounds.”

The Trimble Foundation established a DEI subcommittee to give back to communities, not just within the United States, but globally, she says. The company is focused not only on impacting communities, but also local businesses to make sure people have equal opportunity and equal access.

African American engineer at work on construction site

2. How has the conversation regarding DEI changed - specifically to technology - or been prioritized since you began your career?

The recent highlights of civil unrest, especially in the United States, have driven people to open their eyes a little bit and get comfortable being uncomfortable, Dunbar says.

“DEI really is about that. It's about having the hard conversations. It's about addressing the topics of race and addressing the topics of equity for the underrepresented and that makes people uncomfortable.”

“If I look back 15 years ago to now, I think we've got into a transition of leadership across the globe, across many industries that have said this can't keep happening or have said our businesses are not being as successful as they need to be because we don't have enough diverse perspective,” she says. “Quite frankly, the world is moving in a direction in terms of how it operates very differently than 15 years ago.”

Dunbar points to the online virtual world called the Metaverse, NFTs and the Pandemic as new items businesses now have to grapple with today and in the future. “This is a global pandemic which nobody has experienced and then has turned all industries upside down and how we operate. DEI became extremely important because you have to do things differently to continue to be successful. That challenges the status quo of where people's comfort levels have been historically in pushing them outside of that box.”

3. What factors or initiatives and changes in attitude need to happen for the construction industry to embrace the adoption and acceptance of DEI?

“First and foremost construction has to make sure they're ready,” Dunbar says. “If we're having an open and honest conversation, the history of the industry shows that we're extremely slow to adopt a lot of things, such as technology and operational success, and DEI is no exception. What we have to understand is in order for it to be impactful, we have to be ready. So what does that mean?”

Dunbar says despite the obvious lack of minorities in construction, everyone should be aware of the depth of the issue when it comes to that lack of diversity. Nearly 90% of the construction industry is white and male, when they only make up 78% of the labor force for all industries, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics.

“We have a problem in what we're doing in terms of creating that diverse opportunity within the construction industry, which could drive how much better we're building our buildings, how much better we're utilizing our technological resources and program and project management software to execute these projects,” she says. “Firms are becoming increasingly intentional about this change of scope in the diversity in the workforce and making construction more inclusive for all people, which is great.”

African American Construction Owner

But the industry needs to be more inclusive.

Owners should take a hard look at criteria on selecting subcontractors that allow for disadvantaged business enterprises, for instance, to qualify, she says. Dunbar suggests owners review surety and experience modification ratings for safety and set specific goals for their GCs, such as maybe 25 to 30% inclusion, for illustration’s sake.

“You have to put some accountability metrics in place as a part of that readiness to help support driving DEI as something that we have to do, not something that just sounds good,” Dunbar says. “We have to really be ready and focused on getting it done.”

“Firms are becoming increasingly intentional about this change of scope in the diversity in the workforce and making construction more inclusive for all people, which is great.”

4. What advice would you share with construction owners and businesses for not only attracting, but retaining this sort of diverse, needed talent?

Dunbar says construction firms need to be creative in their approaches not only to retain talent but to attract talent as well. It’s important to align people with where their passions are and consider equity allocations. Millennials in particular place a high value on being able to make an impact in an organization.

“You've got to start really engaging with your employee base on where their passion lies and where they feel like they're having the most impact. When people feel like they're being impactful and their passion is being effective, then they're going to stay despite all of the compensation,” she says.

“The other thing that is very important to these generations is that they're not having any of this non-diverse thought. Historically I think our previous generations were very comfortable with just some things you just don't talk about and you move on. These generations are challenging because they want to know that they’re working in organizations that are all inclusive of all people,” Dunbar says.

It’s important not just to talk about diversity in the construction industry, but to demonstrate your organization is taking action as well.

Female Construction Worker

5. What advice would you give to other construction business leaders when it comes to DEI?

“First and foremost, it's a journey. When you look at DEI, this is not a race; it's not even a marathon. It's literally a journey,” Dunbar says. “So you need to assess where your organization is at. You have to then assess what is most important for your journey and decide what the most appropriate wins that will help you gain traction.”

Ask yourself what is the maturity of your organization or DEI program if you have one in place. More importantly, do you have an opportunity to be aggressive? “This journey is about assessing and moving quickly,” she says. “Although it's a journey and it's going to take time, we have to act now.”

The assessment includes asking whether your leaders are on board. “If I'm the owner of a business or CEO of a business or GM of a division, do I have the support of my leaders? If I don't, I might need to assess who my leadership team is,” she says. “If I do, are they ready and willing and able to help send that message downward?”

The biggest pitfall that Dunbar sees in the DEI journey is when the messaging starts but then stops at the top and does not filter down into the entire organization. Leaders have to be ready to stand behind that message and provide the supporting resources and tools to lower management ranks to help convey the message, she says.

DEI is a cultural change, Dunbar explains, and after making an assessment, leaders need to start wherever the organization stands in the journey. “At Trimble, our journey started with creating a space for safe dialogue,” she says. “DEI is something that you have to get comfortable being uncomfortable about and having the hard conversations.

Diversity In Construction

Before you can start executing and putting action to the DEI journey, you have to be able to be okay with having dialogue and understanding and our journey of dialogue, which has allowed us to get almost two years into our DEI efforts. We just started by giving people grace and not expecting everyone to know everything.”

There is power in having those conversations. Safe space doesn't mean there won't be triggers, but that's where you give people grace and you define the ground rules.

“Once you put these things in place, you are going to create trust and opportunity that will drive the DEI culture change.”

The Future of Diversity in the Construction Industry

By promoting DEI, an organization may expect positive gains such as larger talent pools, better decision making, improved employee engagement and productivity.

  • Larger talent pools circumvent labor shortages. In 2021, 61% of firms said their projects were being delayed because of workforce shortages, and 89% of contractors reported having a hard time finding craft workers. If the construction industry is to thrive, the right person in the right position is crucial, and one solution is prioritizing diversity to broaden companies’ pool of potential employees.

  • Better decision making. Critical reasoning skills enable employees to assess problems and fix them, and a diverse team enhances these skills. A McKinsey report found that companies with the most ethnically diverse executive teams are 33% more likely to outperform other teams’ profit results.

  • Inclusive workplaces improve engagement. Research has shown that employees in diverse, inclusive workplaces are more engaged, exhibit increased organizational advocacy and may have a greater retention rate. This is especially critical in the construction field because much of the job relies on solid teamwork and communication.

  • Increase employee productivity. Employing a diverse workforce enables organizations to recruit the most qualified candidates. In fact, a Gallup report found that removing bias from the interview and hiring process leads to 41% less absenteeism, 70% fewer safety incidents and 59% less turnover.

The construction industry has so much room for growth and improvement, especially in the area of diversity, equity and inclusion. By bringing together people with varied experiences and backgrounds, you are guaranteed to set the stage for success for your organization.

Related Resource:

In this episode of the Connecting Construction Podcast, Tonia Dunbar, Director of Professional Services at Trimble and also a board member for the Trimble Foundation Fund, discusses the impacts of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) on the construction industry. Listen below.

Key Topics Covered: Diversity In Construction

About the Author

Tonia Dunbar
Program Director, Professional Services

As a Program Director of Professional Services, I am known for my expertise in championing strategic initiatives to deliver effective results, participating in critical decision-making processes while also working proactively with cross-functional teams to achieve complete compliance to contract terms and conditions.

With a strategic mindset, I am committed to cultivating exceptional stakeholder relationships, meeting their needs and expectations at every step. As an experienced and goal-oriented professional, business owners know they can rely on my ability to provide exceptional service, resources, and methods to meet ever-changing objectives and ensure compliance with all regulatory requirements.

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