Why one third of new hires are women at this 120-year-old construction firm

Why one third of new hires are women at this 120-year-old construction firm

Phil Puccio

Construction has a long way to go to move the needle on diversity and inclusion in its ranks. While the industry’s numbers, compared to the nation’s overall workforce, skew heavily white and male, companies are making efforts to change that. 

Currently, over 1,100 firms are taking part in Construction Inclusion Week, which kicked off October 18. The initiative, founded by six major construction firms, looks at leadership accountability, unconscious bias, supplier diversity, jobsite culture and community engagement in the industry. 

CIW, which is modeled on the industry’s highly successful Safety Week, is aimed at bringing diversity, equity and inclusion to the forefront of construction’s workforce. In addition, the initiative is designed to make diversity and inclusion a focus in construction 365 days a year, CEOs of the founding companies told Construction Dive.

One firm that’s been doing that is Burns & McDonnell, an employee-owned, full-service construction and engineering firm based in Kansas City, Missouri, with a legacy in construction dating back to 1898. Here, Construction Dive talks with Leon Harden, Burns & McDonnell’s diversity and inclusion strategy manager, about what the company is doing to change the face of its workforce. 

Leon Harden

Courtesy of Burns & McDonnell


CONSTRUCTION DIVE: What inclusion and diversity goals have you had on projects?

Leon Harden: Across all our projects, we work proactively to team with small and large businesses owned by women, veterans and minorities to help prepare us to meet and exceed our clients’ expectations and strengthening the communities where we work. One recent project example is Burns & McDonnell World Headquarters Expansion, which we designed and built ourselves.

In 2020, we completed the final phase of the Burns & McDonnell expansion, a new 142,000-square-foot building on our campus in Kansas City, Missouri. Since breaking ground in 2018, crews worked more than 134,000 hours on the project without any safety incidents.

Nearly 30 minority and women-owned businesses worked on the campus expansion, surpassing the goals of having 24% of the team providing construction services minority and women-owned businesses.

What are the results of working toward those D&I goals as a company?

In the last 5 years, more than $2.4 billion — or 27% of Burns & McDonnell invoiced expenditures — was paid to small and diverse businesses. 

Our business diversity efforts seek to address any inequities in access to opportunities by establishing business relationships with all communities. In 2004, Burns & McDonnell began an intentional focus on supplier inclusion. Since then, we have been recognized with more than 56 industry-related awards for our demonstrated commitment to the utilization and growth of diverse projects for corporate operations. As a federal contractor, we are audited by the federal government — and the most recent audit of our Small & Diverse Business program was rated “Highly Successful.”

We also seek to create alliances with organizations and businesses in our community. To help address racial inequities, Burns & McDonnell deposited $1 million in Douglass National Bank – a Black-owned bank. We are active in, and in many cases board members of, more than 16 organizations that promote diverse business inclusion. We have hosted 17 Community of Inclusion events to recognize the mutually beneficial alliances experienced by our diverse partners and our employee-owners.

We have awarded minority business owners with scholarships to attend the Executive Education Program at Dartmouth College. We also organized the nation’s first corporate collaboration with Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and hosted programs at our firm. Each session was attended by more than 30 diverse business owners.

How do you recruit diverse workers?

Harden: For more than a decade, Burns & McDonnell has had a targeted diversity recruitment strategy, focusing on intentionally reaching and hiring diverse candidates. Our female hires have grown from 25% of total hires to 31% during that time, and our minority hires have increased from 14% to 25%. We are incredibly proud of this progress, but we know there’s work still to be done.

Our growth across regional markets exploded during that same timeframe, allowing us to tap into new talent pools.

We participated in more than 75 diversity job boards, attended over 120 diversity recruitment events each year, leveraged partnerships with professional organizations like the Society of Women Engineers, Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, National Society of Engineers and more to cast a wider talent net, and started earning recognition as a best workplace to strengthen our employment brand and earn a reputation as an employer of choice.

We also welcome opportunity to work alongside students attending historically black universities or diverse institutions. We have worked with Tennessee State University, Alabama A&M University, Clark Atlanta University, Lincoln University and Donnelly College, among others, where we have provided support with project submittals, sponsored a conference on women’s issues and assisted in relaunching a pre-engineering program.

By working with universities and campus organizations, we’ve seen a deliberate increase in our female and minority new grad hiring. In the past five years, we saw a 3% increase in minorities and a 6% increase in females. 

Why did you do this?

Creating an equitable and inclusive workplace for all is our top priority. Our goal is to be the best place to work for all people, and we work hard to achieve that. We recognize that we have room for growth in this area, and every day we strive to push ourselves toward becoming an even better company. A company with an inclusive culture, where everyone feels valued, respected and engaged, where our collective diversity is a catalyst for innovation and our varied perspectives lead to better solutions for our clients, our communities and our people.

What advice would you give to other contractors who want to improve diversity and inclusion in their workforce?

Our firm has been in business for more than 120 years. A key driver of our success has been diversity — diverse business lines, diverse workforce, diverse partnerships. We’ve seen firsthand how diversity leads to better, more creative solutions for our clients. Here are some of the steps we take to maintain this level of diversity:

  • It is critical for contractors to focus on implementing programs and setting goals to increase education, heighten appreciation for cultural diversity and eliminate intolerance. Each contractor should take time to define what diversity and inclusion means for their firm, then start to focus on things they can do to evolve their culture. 
  • When hiring, be transparent about the open position and create a recruitment process that is consistent for all applicants.
  • Be intentional about expanding your talent pool. Utilize all employees to tap their networks and get outside of the typical places you find talent.
  • Offer employees opportunities to tell their stories. Storytelling is a powerful tool to build empathy and show diverse representation within your firm.
  • Offer reciprocal mentorship opportunities where participants are intentional about learning from and advocating for each other.
  • Know that change can be uncomfortable, but critical to be able to attract and retain the workforce of the future.

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