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Staying Strong

The economic recession tests employers' resolve to recruit a diverse workforce

by Linda Wang
June 8, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 23

Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Fletcher, shown here in front of Howard University's chemistry building, faces a tough job market.
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Fletcher, shown here in front of Howard University's chemistry building, faces a tough job market.

For the past several years, Melissa Fletcher watched as her fellow graduate students in the chemistry department at Howard University, in Washington, D.C., were offered positions in industry, academia, and government while nearing completion of their Ph.D. degrees. Two of the graduates even landed tenure-track faculty positions at two different historically black colleges.

With dreams of becoming a professor, Fletcher, who was working toward a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry, hoped that she, too, would have an offer in hand by the time her degree was conferred last month.

But by April, Fletcher's future remained uncertain. She hoped to get some leads from the career fair of the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists & Chemical Engineers' (NOBCChE) annual conference, but nobody seemed to be hiring. "I knew it was going to be challenging," she says, "but I didn't think it was going to be this hard." Two of her classmates who also received Ph.D.s in chemistry this past May haven't had any luck finding jobs either.

The current economic recession has forced many companies and academic institutions to slow hiring to a trickle, and experts in the area of diversity worry that continuing budget cuts will jeopardize efforts to increase racial and ethnic diversity in the sciences.

"I think that recruiting diverse employees in academia or industry takes more commitment and more investment than many companies are willing or able to commit to during difficult economic times," says Gloria Thomas MaGee, an assistant professor of chemistry at Xavier University, in New Orleans, who focuses on broadening the participation of underrepresented groups in the chemical sciences. "My fear and my observation has been that that's one of the first things to go in a company's budget."

But there are signs that companies are not so quick to abandon their commitment to diversity. Take Corning, for example. Even though its recruiters didn't have any jobs to offer, the company participated as an exhibitor at this year's NOBCChE career fair. It was among the roughly 40 exhibitors that participated this year—down from more than 50 last year (see page 58).

"We wanted people to know that Corning is still absolutely committed to what organizations like NOBCChE represent, and we aren't going to just disappear until we happen to have jobs available again," says Mark D. Vaughn, manager of technical talent pipelining for the technology community at Corning.

Merck & Co. is another firm that exhibited at the career fair despite having very few available jobs. "We know that if we're hot and cold, job seekers will be hot and cold in viewing us as committed" to diversity, says Deborah Dagit, vice president and chief diversity officer for Merck. She notes that although the company has not been able to create any new relationships with minority-serving organizations and institutions this year, the company has maintained all of its existing relationships.

Fletcher has mixed feelings about seeing companies at the career fair that weren't hiring. "It's kind of disconcerting because it makes you feel like, I'm looking and I'm doing everything I'm supposed to be doing as a job seeker, but there really are no jobs for me to seek," she says. "But at the same time, at least they're there. It gives you a little bit of motivation because you feel like the companies are not turning their backs on you."

One employer actively recruiting at NOBCChE was the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Darrell L. Davis, laboratory director for DEA's South Central Laboratory, in Dallas, says the agency has roughly 70 openings for forensic chemists at all degree levels. Many of the openings are posted online at Davis says DEA has been searching for top talent at NOBCChE for the past 15 years, even during the past three years, when the agency has been operating under a hiring freeze.

Employers emphasize the importance of diversity to their bottom line. Carlton Truesdale, a research fellow at Corning, says that if his company were to start cutting back on diversity, it would quickly lose its competitive edge. "If diversity is part of how you invent and how you innovate, you're basically cutting your potential," he says. "You need to be able to think outside the box, and diversity helps that happen."

As important as it is to recruit a diverse workforce, it's equally important to retain the diverse workforce a company already has. "During tough economic times, the focus of our efforts is on retention of employees," says Debra Turner Bailey, global diversity officer and human resource director for Corning. "You want to make sure employees feel like they're treated with dignity and respect and that we are investing in them. That bolsters their faith and confidence that our commitment to diversity is real."

Consequently, neither Corning nor Merck has eliminated any of its diversity programs but rather found ways to continue those programs in a more cost-effective way. Truesdale says that at Corning, all of the diversity groups have scaled back on their celebrations, such as Black History Month and Chinese New Year. And at Merck, diversity training, for example, is now offered mostly online rather than in a classroom setting. Sign-up for the company's mentoring program is now also available online. "There's no thought about reducing what we're doing or taking our eyes off the ball," Dagit says. In fact, "the recession has accelerated innovation."

Christopher J. Metzler, an expert on diversity issues and associate dean of human resources studies at Georgetown University, agrees that the recession will force companies to become leaner and more effective in their approach to diversity and inclusion. "I look at the recession as an opportunity for organizations to retool," he says. "What organizations have done is they've taken a surgical approach to cutting. But I think the substance in diversity has not been cut out."

And when the economy picks up again, Metzler believes, these organizations will be well positioned to attract an even more diverse workforce than ever before. Fletcher hopes that day will come soon, both for her and for her fellow Ph.D. graduates.


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