Recession meant cuts to diversity programs

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The economic slowdown meant less spending on diversity programs at area corporations.

Diversity remains important to many of these companies, but efforts are more “targeted,” or “streamlined,” and their recruiters are trying to make better use of the Internet rather than, say, attending or hosting job fairs for minorities.

The effect shows up clearly in the numbers. Higher unemployment levels have been reported among blacks, Hispanics and other minority groups in the past couple of years. According to a recent Pew Research Center study, blacks and Hispanics were twice as likely as whites to have reported being laid off or fired in the previous 12 months.

Like so many other corporations today, Agilent, which has offices at Colorado Springs, says its diversity efforts today reflect a “more self-sufficient” model than its approach in healthier economic times. The global company makes use of the Internet, employee network groups and partnerships.

Still, its commitment to diversity, it says, is no less than ever.

“We understand the value — to our business, our employees and our communities — of an inclusive environment that respects and celebrates unique perspectives,” said Mirta Walker, diversity officer at Agilent’s Colorado Springs office.

At ITT Systems, the company is nearing its goal for women engineers and actually surpassed it for minority engineers — an achievement driven by an active recruiting campaign at both the college and professional levels.

“At the corporate level, we have a 30-20 goal,” said spokesman B.J. Talley. “Thirty percent women, 20 percent people of color. Last year, we very nearly made it — 26 percent women and 24 percent people of color.”

Diversity plays a big role in corporate policies at ITT Systems, where more than half its 7,500 employees work outside Colorado Springs — and outside the United States.

For the defense contractor, diversity means more than just hiring minorities and women, it also means educating the workforce about the countries and cultures where they’ll be working.

“Those programs are essential,” said Bob Lehman, vice president for human resources for ITT Systems in Colorado Springs. “We have no plans to cut those. We couldn’t — we have to teach people how to work with the third-country nationals that they’ll be working with on the ground. It’s vital.”

But ITT, like so many other companies, has adjusted its spending on diversity programs. In the past, the program’s budget has seen increases as high as 15 percent. In 2009, that increase was 5 percent, Lehman said.

For many companies, diversity programs are tempting places to trim their budgets. But as USAA’s Tifannie McDonald says, they do so at their own peril.

“Study after study shows that diverse workforces are more productive, more creative, have more profitable bottom lines,” she said. “That’s something that shouldn’t be ignored.”

Most companies don’t ignore it, exactly, but some feel that they’ve accomplished what they need to with their diversity programs.

“There’s an idea that these programs aren’t necessary any longer,” said McDonald, who runs USAA’s diversity program. “That companies have already hired minorities — but we just aren’t there yet.”

Diversity cuts aren’t only on the chopping block for corporations. Sen. Jim Webb, a Democrat from Virginia, believes that government diversity programs should be cut because they’ve served their purpose.

In a recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, Webb said the programs had expanded “so far beyond their original purpose that they now favor anyone who does not happen to be white.”

But studies show otherwise. A report from the University of Illinois at Chicago points to diversity programs as one way to guarantee a creative, profitable company. A review of 1,000 companies showed that more diverse a workforce, the more profitable a company.

Some analysts argue that laying off more minorities now — and cutting diversity programs — will have long-term negative effects. Without a focus on minority hiring, fewer minorities will find their way back to the workforce even as the economy recovers.