IN 25-PLUS YEARS of being a project manager I have yet to sit across a job conference table from an African-American project manager and I’ve often wondered why. Please don’t have a typical knee-jerk reaction and say it’s because I was raised and mostly worked in the South. I’ve run jobs all over this great country of ours from the West through the Midwest and into New England and have never seen proverbial hide nor hair of any project manager’s skin color that was a shade darker than a decent Caucasian suntan.
Is this conscious or unconscious racism on the part of those who actually make decisions to promote from within or hire outside their company’s ranks, i.e., the owners or the executive management team? After careful consideration, I’d have to say “yes.” If this statement makes you angry, then you need to examine why it makes you feel that way.
I’ve tried to be as color-blind as possible when it comes to my own hiring practices for typical jobs. Because the bottom line of every job is green, trying to keep a job “in the black” instead of letting it go “in the red,” what counts is maximum utilization of all personnel resources and it doesn’t matter to that green bottom line if the human resource that produces it is white, black, red, yellow, etc.
Since virtually all outside hiring and inside promotion to the project management ranks are made by white males, it’s common sense and acknowledgment of human nature to recognize that those who make those decisions are more likely to have a more positive impression of those more like themselves than those who are not. This is a low-down shame on our industry because with the labor shortages in all job descriptions that we all face day-to-day, we can’t afford to let our own personal preferences and prejudices get in the way of effective personnel decisions. Those decisions, based on merit, will ultimately affect your company’s overall fiscal health and possibly your own year-end profit-sharing bonus.
I think part of the problem is that, for some reason, African-Americans have not been attracted to the mechanical trades as independent businesspeople as they have been to other similar lines of work. In many other hands-on types of jobs such as shoe repair, iron work, concrete work, computer repair, tailoring and even outside utility contracting, African-Americans usually have numbers proportional to the percentage of population, but not in plumbing or HVAC work.
Many successful large-job project managers have had one or more stints of being self-employed small-shop owners before moving on to the relative job security of a larger company doing larger jobs. Relatively low barriers to entry are involved with setting up a small service contracting firm (which tons of white folks have done for decades). The smart businesspeople as well as well-trained craftspeople have grown them into successful mechanical contracting firms. It really has surprised me that more minority-owned firms haven’t been started and grown full-flower into Top 100 mechanical contracting companies.
What to do about it, if anything? I don’t know, other than some basic stuff like more recruiting outreach programs both in the nation’s rural areas (running duct and pipe to me is easier than many jobs found in a rural area’s economy) and in the inner city too. You can, obviously, aggressively recruit some of the best graduates from the top engineering schools and schools of business management, whatever their ethnicity. And don’t automatically dismiss your field foreman’s desire to be taught the basics of project management just because his or her pigmentation isn’t the same as your parents.
Sheet metal, cast iron and mechanical equipment don’t care about the color of skin of the person installing them, and neither do a job’s “green sheets.” When I’m in the job-foxhole and bullets of potential disaster are whizzing over my head and mortars of potential economic death are falling all around me, the last thing on my mind is the race of my foxhole buddy whose mutual future is also in my hands. The first thing on my mind is if he knows his job well enough to know when to duck and when to charge and when to retreat and when to totally kick ass with me.
As long as he’s qualified to share that foxhole with me and is upstanding and honest, I know we’ll make it through that war OK, together.
H. Kent Craig is a second-generation mechanical contractor with unlimited master’s licenses in boilers, plumbing, air conditioning and heating. You may contact him by telephone at 919/462-0773 or via e-mail at [email protected]