In October of 1993, I founded Reata Engineering in Englewood, Colorado, charging $6,000 on my credit card to purchase a used manual lathe and mill. Before starting my business, I became actively involved with my wife’s family farm and ranch in Elizabeth, Colorado, from which I brought many lessons with me as I grew our precision machine shop.
One of those lessons was that monocultures are detrimental to growth. If you weren’t raised on a farm or ranch, you might be surprised to learn that diversity is beneficial when growing crops. It’s more challenging to grow one crop at a time than it is to grow several crops together.
Simply put. . . monocultures limit success.
Monocultures Are Bad for Business
As a leader in the manufacturing industry, I’ve kept that truth in mind as I built my business. When too many people in a company come from the same background and have a similar set of experiences, there’s no room for natural growth, innovation, or unique ideas.
As humans, we can’t learn new and different concepts if everyone at the table has the same thought patterns, habits, and methods. Today, manufacturing is less about picking up heavy parts and more about problem-solving, and we need people with diverse backgrounds to help us come up with better solutions.
It’s no secret that US manufacturing has historically been driven by a monoculture of white males. Except for the Rosie the Riveter era during World War II, a male workforce has been the norm. While women make up roughly half of the total national workforce, only a third of workers in the manufacturing industry are women. Even then, they’re far more likely to hold jobs in the front office than on the shop floor.
5 Ways to Prioritize Diversity in Manufacturing
Company culture is an essential component of success in any modern job shop—and if you want your organization to thrive culturally, diversity is key.
We’ve seen many wonderful results from proactively diversifying our shop here at Reata Engineering. We deal with conflict better. We’re more transparent with each other. We have open and clearer communication (even in multiple languages). We have amazing team-building events and holiday parties to celebrate all employees. We’re having more fun, and our productivity is up.
When I founded our company almost 30 years ago, diversity and inclusion weren’t common topics for business owners—but they should have been. Now, it’s on today’s manufacturing leaders to make these topics part of our ongoing conversations.
Here are five strategies for prioritizing diversity in job shops:
1. Proactively pursue a diverse workforce
It’s not enough to say your company welcomes diversity in your job descriptions. Business leaders must proactively pursue a diverse workforce. Some schools and organizations are already attracting a more comprehensive range of students—align yourself with these groups to start broadening your talent pool.
Whether you speak in front of classes at a local school or show up and meet talented individuals at competitions hosted by groups like the National Robotics League, keep trying to find entry points to present your company as a viable option.
2. Expand your expectations and embrace all backgrounds
Even with the Great Resignation in full effect, I know some shops hesitate to hire machinists who look and speak differently than the rest of the team. This is an archaic and detrimental way of doing business.
Our industry has a huge need for skilled labor right now, but, sadly, nonwhite applicants still have a more challenging time finding positions. These biases in hiring harm everyone: those struggling to find a job and those struggling to build out their teams to meet demand.
At Reata, we’ve built an interview process that focuses on an applicant’s skills first and background second. Ultimately, we want people who will perform well. Having different ideas and approaches is okay—we welcome it! While we seek candidates aligned with our mission and vision, we set our expectations broadly. We know that many people from all walks of life could be a great addition to our team.
3. Model inclusivity and acceptance
Building a culture of acceptance must start at the top. It’s up to leadership to establish what is appropriate and what isn’t tolerated. Use words and actions to let your team know that different is good and that all are equally welcome.
Will you get pushback? Probably. But part of your role as a leader is to help your team learn and grow as workers and individuals. For some members of your team, embracing diversity won’t happen overnight, so model the behavior you wish to see every day.
If an issue arises, address team members directly and let them know which exact words, phrases, and behaviors won’t be tolerated. There’s no need to be hostile or judgemental; just clearly and calmly shut down any inappropriate banter or actions.
4. Be teachable and commit to constant improvement
If you’re like me, you won’t always have the answers or right words to say all the time. But you do have your integrity and commitment to being a better, more inclusive leader.
Will you mess up and make mistakes? I do. But I apologize and have open, honest conversations with my teammates so we can get it right. I often ask for help and acknowledge challenges, and I encourage other shop leaders to do the same. Allowing myself to make mistakes and remain accountable and available to learn has strengthened the bonds within my team.
5. Recognize diversity as an ongoing priority
When I realized we needed to diversify our shop, I intentionally sought women and skilled workers from other backgrounds. Now we have women in machinist, assembly, and inspection roles, and our Head of Operations is also a woman.
Do you know the expression, “Energy flows where your attention goes”? It’s true of prioritizing diversity and inclusion at work. Where you put your attention, you’ll see results. While it won’t happen immediately, if you keep showing up at industry schools and competitions, networking and meeting diverse talent, modeling inclusivity and acceptance, and learning from your team, your shop will become more diverse in time. And as individual shops transform, so, too, will our entire industry.
As leaders in manufacturing, we need to be proactive and ensure we seek diverse talent while creating inclusive work environments. It might be hard at first, and you could face internal and external challenges along the way, but your company’s success depends on the culture you start building today.
Learn practical advice for filling the skills gap with modern technology, attracting top talent, and retaining your existing workforce in this roundtable discussion featuring 3 savvy shop owners.
Grady Cope is the President and CEO of Reata Engineering, a contract manufacturer specializing in precision machining and assembly in beautiful Englewood, Colorado.