As a person of color, Tyler TerMeer experienced a culture shock when he moved to Portland from Washington, D.C. three years ago to become executive director of Project Health, which provides healthcare to the LGBTQ+ community.
"In Washington, D.C., everyone around me was a person of color. In Portland, even walking downtown five blocks doesn't always feel safe to me," he says.
TerMeer talked about his unease living in the whitest major city in America at the end of last Wednesday's Portland Business Alliance breakfast forum on workforce diversity. Although he spoke from his table in the audience, TerMeer's comments amplified the presentations made by the three expert panelists on the challenges of recruiting and retaining minority workers in Portland.
"When employees come from diverse communities outside Oregon, the average stay is 18 months before they leave. Oregon has a history of racism and is not the most welcoming place," said Riikka Salonen, the manager for healthcare equity and inclusion at the Oregon Health & Sciences University.
But employers must make every effort to recruit and keep minority employees, if only to stay in business.
"Over the next 20 years, we know that the majority is going to be in the minority. So if you value your company, you need to work at it," said Maurice Rahming, president of O'Neil Electric, an African-American owned construction company.
The third panelist said everyone benefits from a diverse workforce.
"You cannot always find the skilled employees you need, so creating pathways for unskilled workers who can learn the job is one answer," said Sue Haley, executive vice president for human resources and administration at Vigor Industrial, a large ship building and repair company based at Swan Island.
The discussion at the downtown Sentinel Hotel started with a presentation about the Workforce Diversity Project, an initiative by the PBA and a number of partners to identify and figure out how to overcome barriers to minority hiring. The project began after a 2013 PBA research paper revealed that few minorities were applying for manufacturing jobs in the region, even though they pay an average of 49 percent more than non-manufacturing jobs that require the same level of education.
As part of its work, the project contracted with Portland State University for demographic research. The Institute of Portland Metropolitan Studies at PSU reported last October that the working-age and school-age population in the region is growing more racially diverse. The population that identifies as Hispanic is the fastest-growing, having doubled to 25 percent in the past decade. During the same period, the Asian population grew by about 50 percent, and the African-American and Native American populations grew by 35 percent. Children under 15 are increasingly nonwhite, with half the students in Portland Public Schools belonging to communities of color.
"As our community is becoming more diverse, we need to become more inclusive and change how we recruit workers. The traditional ways don't work as well for communities of color, where people rely on friends and leader they trust to find work," said Mari Watanabe, the PBA's executive director for its Partners in Diversity Program.
Watanabe also said that over the past three years, the project expanded to include other kinds of jobs, including those in the healthcare industry, where there is currently a shortage of trained nurses in the Portland region.
All of the panelists talked about programs and other efforts within their organizations to increase minority hiring and retention. They ranged from a 5 percent salary bonus for bilingual employees at OHSU to helping funds job training programs with community colleges at Vigor Industrial and working with pre-apprenticeship programs at O'Neill Electric, including Portland Youth Builders and Oregon Tradeswomen.
All of the panelists also talked about the importance of creating a job environment where everyone feels welcome and want to come work, including those with disabilities.
"We have a deaf welder. She learned how to communicate with us with texts and other means," said Haley, who urged those in the room to continuously experiment with new ideas. "None of us feels perfectly successful at this."
O'Neill also said it is important that teacher and counselors in the public schools understand that blue collar jobs pay well and are satisfying.
"There's a stereotype that you can only be successful if you go to college and you turn to construction if you can't get in, and that needs to change," he said.
For O'Neill himself, helping minorities into good paying jobs is a personal mission.
"I grew up in the projects and benefits from food stamps. These jobs are pathways out of poverty. I'm proof of that," said O'Neill.