F.A. Wilhelm Construction – Building on a Culture of Diversity
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, by 2022, every industry in the United States will feel the effects of demographic shifts happening throughout the country. The construction industry will enjoy some of the fastest growth; however, will also be challenged with changes in the workforce that require new ways of thinking about the issue of diversity in the workplace.
Philip Kenney, President of F.A. Wilhelm Construction agrees. “Our industry is changing,” he said. “And, we are responding to that.” Kenney said that while construction has historically not favored an inclusive labor force, it will have to become much more diverse in order to attract and retain the workers necessary to support projected growth. He said, “We need to get out in front of that for the future of the industry and our company.”
Wilhelm has been leading the way to a more diverse workforce for a long time. Several years ago, Wilhelm established an internal diversity committee, which continues to meet regularly to promote diversity inside and outside the office. Kenney said. “We try to make our company’s diversity mirror our community.”
One of the committee’s goals is to keep diversity top-of-mind when contracting with other companies and filling open positions within Wilhelm. “We hire people for their skills,” Kenney said, “not their gender or their race.” Diversity is important, he said, “But, it has to first be about what they bring to the team.”
Kenney said the main purpose of the committee is to build awareness. And, that doesn’t happen overnight. “It’s like any other initiative or topic,” he said. “The more you keep the information out in front of people, the more they react to it.”
This will become even more important in the future as many different faces begin to appear in construction company offices and on work sites. In the first of a three-part series on diversity in the construction industry, Wilhelm will explore the benefits and challenges in creating a more ethnically and culturally diverse workplace. In the next issue, Wilhelm will take a closer look at the impact women are having on the industry. And in the last part of the series, Wilhelm will examine the changes that generational shifts in the workforce will require for construction companies to survive and thrive in the future.
Cultural diversity translates into creative solutions and happy staff
The business case for building more diversity into the construction industry is clear. With a projected 2.8 percent increase in the number of new construction jobs each year between now and 2024 and a labor force projected to grow at only 0.5 percent, companies can expect to have a tougher time filling open positions. And, the labor force is changing, too. By 2050, the number of Hispanics, Asians and Black workers combined will make up almost half of the workforce in the United States.
What impact will these changes have on the construction industry? Philip Kenney, president of F.A. Wilhelm Construction, believes they will bring improvements in the industry, particularly with regard to problem solving.
According to Kenney, multiple perspectives lead to better and more creative solutions. “We’re always promoting the idea that everyone needs to use their imagination. When you have different perspectives on a project team, you think of things you might not otherwise have considered.”
Wenguo (Wayne) Feng, a senior engineer with Wilhelm agreed, saying that as a company, cultural diversity gives you a competitive edge. He said companies that embrace cultural diversity are able to more effectively address a wider range of problems for their clients. “Diversity offers a different kind of thinking – different perspectives to get problems solved,” Feng said. He added that different people with different backgrounds sharing their ideas in a team environment stimulates creativity, often resulting in a more effective solution.
According to Feng, employing people from other cultures also Increases a firm’s ability to better understand some customers’ needs, particularly where global clients are concerned. Feng noted that Wilhelm has many large, international clients. Having a workforce that mirrors that of Wilhelm’s clients can better help in understanding and addressing their needs. For example, “In proposals, they may ask about requirements that local, less diverse companies may not understand,” Feng said. He compared diversity in the workplace to a balanced ecosystem, adding that without it, “your perspective is narrowed, and your presence [in the market] is not well rounded.”
Despite these benefits, building more diversity into the construction industry is not without its challenges, though. Attracting and retaining qualified workers is becoming increasingly difficult, especially for companies that don’t embrace cultural diversity.
Feng came to the United States for his graduate studies and has worked here since. He’s been a minority at most of the places he’s worked at during his career. In one of his previous jobs, he was the only Asian in an office of 60 people.
Feng said he felt pretty isolated at times, noting that communication was sometimes an issue. At times, he wanted to remind his coworkers “we’re not from another planet, just another country.” Still, he understands how workers from other cultures can become isolated in a workplace that doesn’t value diversity. “It happens naturally,” he said. “It’s nothing personal. You can’t force people to be patient.” Nonetheless, Feng said that experience taught him to make workplace diversity a priority when seeking employment. “I don’t want to work for firms that don’t make an effort to be inclusive and tolerant.”
Feng has worked for engineering consulting firms for most of his career, some of which were large, global corporations. So, he wasn’t sure what to expect when he came to Wilhelm.
Feng admits that he was surprised by the welcoming atmosphere he’s enjoyed since coming to Wilhelm. “They make me feel very comfortable. Although my English is not the best, I can offer other contributions to the team. They value my opinions.” Feng said that it does take longer to communicate sometimes. But, his colleagues at Wilhelm are patient – they make the effort to understand him and help him understand them.
“Being open-minded is very important for the future, for the next generation – the cultures are mixing together,” Feng said. Phil Kenney, President, said he’s ready for the changes that this mixing will bring to the construction industry and welcomes all the new talent that will come with that. “At Wilhelm,” he said, “we were all taught a long time ago to appreciate everybody.”