Region of Choice initiative forges ahead toward workforce diversity targets

The Region of Choice initiative launched at MMAC’s All Member meeting in September 2019.
The Region of Choice initiative launched at MMAC’s All Member meeting in September 2019.

Last updated on May 4th, 2020 at 03:47 pm

Milwaukee-based Versiti Inc. recently had to reconsider whether it would fill some of its open positions due to the uncertainty created by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. But the organization – a holding company for a network of blood centers across the upper Midwest – remained committed to hiring for an open position within its diversity and inclusion department..

“We said, ‘No, we have to hire for this. This is who we are and this is who we serve,”’ said Chris Miskel, president and chief executive officer of Versiti.

Versiti is among nearly 100 companies in southeastern Wisconsin to publicly seal their commitment to D&I efforts in recent months by signing the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce Region of Choice pledge.

Launched at MMAC’s All Member meeting in September, the Region of Choice initiative set two targets to increase the diversity of southeastern Wisconsin’s workforce by 2025, including increasing the number of African-American and Hispanic/Latino employees by 15%, and the number of African-American and Hispanic/Latino managers by 25%. At the time, 64 companies had committed to the effort.

As of mid-April, 97 companies are now on board.

Some of the urgency behind the D&I push came from an MMAC-commissioned study indicating metro Milwaukee ranks last among 20 of its peer cities when it comes to African American prosperity, Hispanic prosperity, and the prosperity gap between African American and white residents and Hispanic and white residents. The chamber’s members – a group that includes about 1,800 employers in the region – named racial disparities as the most difficult challenge facing the region in a recent survey.

In the initial months, MMAC leaders have focused on garnering support for Region of Choice from area employers and gathering baseline data of the number of African American and Hispanic employees in participating companies. In February, about 80 representatives from Region of Choice companies convened for the first meeting.

“There is an appetite for this,” said Christopher Rowland, chief diversity officer of Milwaukee-based ManpowerGroup and a member of MMAC’s diversity and inclusion committee. “People are aware of the challenges and opportunities that come with ensuring we have a diverse workforce. But there is a real hunger and desire for the how … and to share best practices.”

MMAC was preparing to hold another meeting on April 21 for participating CEOs to address some of those questions when the COVID-19 crisis forced organizers to postpone it.

While companies now face a different reality than when the initiative launched, those championing Region of Choice say the pandemic has only reinforced its relevance.

The high COVID-19 infection and death rate among African Americans in Milwaukee County — and the virus’s prevalence in hot spots within Milwaukee’s predominantly Hispanic south side neighborhoods – underscore health and economic disparities in the community.

“The disproportionate impact on the African American and Hispanic community lays bare the disparities we recognized at the outset of this,” said MMAC executive vice president Julie Granger.

For Versiti, creating an inclusive workplace culture ties into the company’s efforts to address disparities related to blood and tissue donations.

“This is our space to figure out how to connect with diverse donors so they can be part of saving lives and in their own community,” Miskel said. “If we can’t make that mission resonate, no one will. … That’s a responsibility we have to take seriously.”

Over the past year, Versiti has developed internal infrastructure in an effort to recruit and retain a diverse workforce. It created a D&I office, added a multicultural leadership council, and now has D&I councils in each of its network’s five states.

“It starts with building a culture so that when we recruit folks, they feel supported and that (the organization) is something they want to continue to be a part of,” Miskel said. “The talent acquisition team is focused on where do we increase our odds of getting diverse talent and then coaching, mentorship and ultimately progression within the organization.”

For some companies, however, the COVID-19 crisis could derail, or at least delay, efforts to increase their workforce diversity. While the pre-pandemic labor market created a strong business imperative to draw more people into the workforce, companies are now having to make cuts.

“It is really hard to make predictions in the current environment,” Granger said. “In the immediate short-term we will see huge unemployment, which, for a while, is at least going to seem like it’s in direct opposition to where we were going.”

But, once businesses reopen and begin to stabilize, Granger said, it’s an opportunity to rebuild with a greater focus on inclusion.

Rowland said the sense of solidarity and collaboration that has emerged out of the public health crisis could also help companies work together on the Region of Choice targets.

“People are more open to sharing what they’re doing,” Rowland said. “I think we’ve started to see that, and I’m hoping that will be accelerated. There is one, a need, and two, a willingness to build on that collaboration and unity.”

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Lauren Anderson
Lauren Anderson covers health care, nonprofits, education and insurance for BizTimes. Lauren previously reported on education for the Waukesha Freeman. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studied journalism, history and African studies. In her free time, Lauren enjoys spending time with family and friends and seeing live music wherever she can.