A year ago, James Burroughs took the helm of an effort aimed at increasing the percentage of people of color who work in state government — an ambitious attempt to create a state workforce that mirrors the racial and ethnic diversity in Minnesota.
To get there, Burroughs dedicated his first four months as the state’s chief inclusion officer to meeting with leaders from various underrepresented communities across the state.
Those meetings taught Burroughs two important lessons: first, that many qualified professionals of color don’t have networks to alert them about career opportunities in state government; second, that many applicants never even make it onto the radar of the government’s hiring managers.
Burroughs also learned that professionals of color don’t see the state government as an ideal destination for prospective employment. Among the reasons is — as scores of leaders from the African-American, Hispanic-American and Asian-Americans communities told Burroughs — professionals of color who have been with the state for decades oftentimes feel stymied in their efforts to get higher level jobs or leadership positions. “A lot of them hadn’t had opportunities to move up,” Burrough said. “They didn’t necessarily feel valued and included.”
After the community engagement meetings, Burroughs, an attorney and longtime leader on equity issues in Minnesota, decided to find ways to establish relationships and trust between major organizations that serve communities of color and state leaders.
So he held a series of events with the St. Paul-based Coalition of Asian American Leadership, LatinoLEAD and the African American Leadership Forum, explaining the work his inclusion office does and asking them to become partners in the state’s effort to diversify the workforce. For each meeting, those organizations sent 30-40 representatives to meet with executive leaders from the state’s human resources department and commissioners to discuss employment opportunities with the government.
“We talked about opportunities to partner with them,” Burroughs said. “We built that trust, and we let people know that if they’re interested in getting a job with us, here is the process you take.”
Beyond engaging communities of color, Burroughs also has been trying to convince his own colleagues in leadership positions — who have been skeptical about the state’s diversity initiative — that recruiting for diversity doesn’t necessarily equate to lowering employees’ standards or qualifications. He said that he explained that the inclusion office was meant to expand access to career opportunities to qualified professionals of color who may not know about career opportunities at the state.
“Changing that culture internally has been one of the main challenges,” Burroughs said. “But I think we’re doing a good job in making people understand that.”
Professionals of color job fair
Burroughs has begun collaborating with other people and organizations who have trying to diversify the state’s workforce.
One of those he turned to was Sharon Smith-Akinsanya, founder of the People of Color Career Fair, the twice-a-year job event aimed at connecting people of color to top employers — including state, county and city governments as well as educational institutions, foundations and private companies in the Twin Cities metro area.
At its meeting last week, the career fair drew more than 1,500 professionals of color to the Minneapolis Convention Center for networking opportunities with recruiters from 30 employers, including the University of Minnesota, Medtronic, Comcast, Target and US Bank. “Most of the people in this room have bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees,” said Smith-Akinsanya of the job-seekers.
Various agencies from the state were also present at the event — which featured Gov. Mark Dayton, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman — to share information and collect resumes from potential state employees.
It’s too early to say how many people the state recruited from last week’s career fair, Smith-Akinsanya said, but a similar event she hosted last year led the state government to hire eight African-Americans for leadership positions, including a new director of the department of recruitment, retention and affirmative action.
Those new hires are among the 1,650 black employees currently working for the state, which has nearly 35,000 workers. Of those, about 29,000 are white; 1,165 are Asians; 679 are Hispanics; and 2,000 are Native Americans and others who didn’t specify their race.
Over the past five years, the state has seen a gradual increase in the number of employees who are members of racial or ethnic minorities. In 2012, for instance, 8.3 percent of the state’s workforce were people of color — a number that increased to 9.3 percent in 2014 and to 11.5 percent last year.
On top of increasing the number of its minority employees, Burroughs said, the state has “exponentially increased” its applications from communities of color since the inception of the inclusion office. “Now, people from these communities are receiving positive information about the state’s hiring process from their own communities,” he added. “They’re talking about that we’re really serious about diversifying our workforce.”
The inclusion office has also created a pathway program in collaboration with local nonprofit organizations — including Urban League, Project for Pride in Living, Summit Academy and others — to train job-seekers of color who don’t have the education or skills to acquire state jobs. “We needed to create a pipeline for people of color and people with disabilities to make sure we have that pipeline going,” said Burroughs.
Like many major employers across the country, the state has seen skilled-worker shortages in departments that are losing employees to retirement. In fact, the state is expected to have a shortage of 100,000 in the next three years.
To fill some of those jobs, Burroughs’ office is partnering with vocational schools that are already training the people they need for positions available within the state government. “It’s not a training program,” he said, “but a recruiting strategy around how they can get us some of those folks.”
When they join the state’s workforce, Burroughs added, the new employees will have a career pathway in place — which means they’ll have opportunities to move up the career ladder and even develop leadership skills in the next several years.
The state’s career pathway program is also working with local organizations — such as Ujamaa Place and Better Futures Minnesota — that are serving formerly incarcerated Minnesotans who are now willing to turn their lives around.
“We’ve made some strides,” Burroughs said of his first year on the job. “But we still have a long way to go.”