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Culture Shock

By 2020, nearly half the workforce will be female and non-white. Are utilities ready?
Fortnightly Magazine - June 1 2003

into our community would be suicidal for us as an organization," Feaster states emphatically.

"The bottom line is, the world is changing," Feaster says. "We have to be able to relate to customers to be in business."

National and global companies have already come to this realization, Feaster maintains. "The more diverse the customer base is, the easier it is for Pepsi [employees], for example, to understand clearly the case for diversity. Every employee there has to think about how [diversity] impacts the bottom line," Feaster observes.

Creating a diverse, inclusive environment within an organization takes time. "Changing culture to value diversity is not an overnight event," says Smith. What it takes, more than anything, is opening up the lines of communication, according to Stephen Paskoff, president of Atlanta-based ELI (Employment Learning Innovations). Paskoff, a former attorney for both the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and a management-side law firm, has advised a host of utilities on diversity programs.

Paskoff says that companies may find that creating that inclusive environment benefits them in other areas, like safety. He cites an example of a nuclear utility client from several years ago whose employees went outside the company-to regulators, plaintiffs' lawyers, and the press-to air their concerns about safety. To address the problem, Paskoff had the company randomly pick a number of employees to participate anonymously in a focus group.

The employees said that if their employer wanted them to feel comfortable talking about safety, they needed to feel comfortable talking to management about anything. If management was not responsive on other issues, the employees questioned, why would they respond to safety issues? In instances like this, creating an inclusive culture in which employees feel safe raising a host of concerns, regarding diversity or something else altogether, can reap unexpected benefits. As Paskoff points out, "All of these issues are related."

Slow Going

Yet despite all the sound business reasons for diversity, progress has been slow in the utility industry (see Figure 2). Take that Washington transmission conference, which might fairly be assumed to be representative of the management-level operations workforce at a typical utility.

Even comparing the meeting's demographics to 1995 U.S. population figures, the attendees didn't reflect the racial make-up of the country, which were: 12 percent black, 3.3 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, and 10.2 percent Hispanic (see Figure 3). While the combined total of minority attendees at the Washington transmission meeting, 12 percent, was closer to average population figures, the percentage of women attendees, 8 percent, was nowhere near the 46.5 percent of the workforce that women now occupy.

The U.S. Labor Department predicts that by 2050, whites will still make up the majority of the U.S. population, but barely: only 52.8 percent. Those of Hispanic origin are predicted to jump to 1 in 4 (24.5 percent), blacks will jump slightly to 13.6 percent, and Asian/Pacific Islanders will more than double, to 8.2 percent.

The number of women in the workforce is also predicted to grow to 48 percent by 2005.

Getting Ahead of the Curve

In a very troubled economy, it might