During the Untapped Talent for Business event hosted by the Greater Des Moines Partnership’s Inclusion Council, panelists shared the need for changes in workplace culture and hiring systems to address Central Iowa’s high unemployment rate for African Americans.

The panel was facilitated by Sailu Timbo, Director of Diversity and Recruiting at Hy-Vee, Inc. and a member of The Partnership’s Inclusion Council. Panelists included the following:

  • Will Holmes - Starts Right Here Movement
  • Dennis Henderson - Broadlawns Medical Center
  • Negus Sankofa Imhotep - Urban Dreams
  • Nancy Richardson - Hy-Vee, Inc.

The unemployment rate for African Americans living in the Des Moines area is 16.7 percent compared with 3.5 percent for all Polk County, according to One Economy’s 2017 report. Participants at the event noted that Central Iowa has a long way to go to hire and retain African Americans, and that making it a priority can improve a company’s bottom line.

Here are five takeaways on how companies can increase employment opportunities for African Americans in Iowa:

1. Address company culture.

A system that perpetuates white supremacy and segregation still exists today, and we need to recognize that colorblindness doesn’t exist, said panelist Negus.

“If you want a friend, you make yourself friendly,” Negus said, which means if you want diversity in your workplace, “you create a cultural environment that’s conducive for other people.”

Negus pointed to Wellmark waving the Pan-African flag for Black History Month as a starting point for creating a welcoming environment.

2. Make hiring for diversity a priority.

Hiring for diversity has to be a primary priority, many noted. Most often, hiring managers hire someone referred to them by their network, and most of our networks lack diversity.

Izaah Knox with Urban Dreams offered two important steps based on research in hiring practices: 1) Have more than one person of color in your candidate pool for a job. This study showed it will dramatically change who gets hired. 2) Implement blind hiring. Research shows that if two resumes look the same, a person whose name sounds white gets called for an interview more often. Zip code also matters in who gets picked for an interview.

3. Do more than mentor: sponsor.

During the panel discussion, Dennis shared his story of how after 25 years in prison, he was laid off from a job and went to Urban Dreams for help. Wayne Ford, who founded the organization, began taking Dennis to meetings.

“He never took me to a meeting and did not allow me to speak,” Dennis said. Eventually, the position at Broadlawns coordinating the T.E.A.C.H. program was created with Dennis’ unique skill set and experience in mind.

Wayne Ford challenged the room to do more than listen and want to do good. Instead, do what he did for Dennis – bring someone along.

Other participants agreed that beyond mentorship, individuals need someone who advocates for them and actively helps them access opportunities to advance.

4. Start with youth.

This effort must start with youth and helping them find a better path, Will noted. Many of the youth he’s connected to cannot pass a drug test because they smoke weed. Without a clean test, they cannot access good paying jobs. They need to see an option that’s as enticing as using drugs and making money illegally.

Negus agreed that the youth he works with in the school system often turn to illegal activity to make enough money for their family and their future. These are business-minded youth, he said, who need mentoring, sponsorship, and development.

Exposing young people to career options and helping them gain work experience in high school through opportunities like the Summer Youth Employment Program at Oakridge Neighborhood and Evelyn K Davis Center are important, and require employers to provide those experiences.

5. Change policies and practices.

Many noted how the disproportionate number of African Americans convicted of a crime creates a huge barrier for employment. Dennis encouraged employers to look at hiring policies and be up front with candidates about who might be automatically excluded from consideration. At Broadlawns, he built a relationship with the Department of Human Services to identify requirements for working in health care and is up front that if candidates have certain kinds of offenses, like child abuse, they cannot be considered for the program.

Some participants noted that we need to address policies at the national level, which keep people out of the insurance and financial fields, and to make sure people aren’t entering apprenticeships or education without the chance of getting a job down the road.

Nancy talked about choosing to hire individuals with criminal records at her Waukee store. She said, often, the candidates give honest answers in an interview and are just as likely to be successful as other candidates. During an interview with someone who has been convicted of a crime, she simply says: “Tell me your story.”

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TAGS: Thriving Workforce

About The Author: Sarah Welch

Sarah Welch is the former Strategic Communications Officer at United Way of Central Iowa.