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Engaging Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the Talent Search: Tips for Manufacturers

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For Tonya Byrd, there was never any great conundrum about where to attend college.

No question: “I was raised in that HBCU mindset,” said the Howard University alumna and director of community engagement policy and local affairs for Dominion Energy. “It was not a question for me of where I wanted to matriculate and learn and grow.”

MI webinar: Byrd shared some of her own academic and professional experiences as she joined Intel’s Chris Ross for a recent Manufacturing Institute webinar on how manufacturers can best engage historically Black colleges and universities.

  • Byrd and Ross, who lead HBCU engagement at their respective companies, agreed on three main strategies manufacturers can employ to bolster their diversity and inclusion work and attract African American talent in a tight labor market.

Build relationships: A manufacturer doesn’t have to have huge sums of money to successfully engage HBCUs and their students, Ross and Byrd said. 

  • “We’re finding there are a lot of ways you make … meaningful pathways happen” between HBCUs and manufacturers, Ross said. “And it doesn’t require big paychecks to happen. We’re looking at, ‘Can we just set up some Zoom calls or Teams calls where we bring in some of our engineers … and they talk about what it’s like to be an engineer at Intel?’”
  • Headquartered in Richmond, Virginia, Dominion Energy sits strategically close to many HBCUs on the Atlantic coast—but location isn’t everything, Byrd said. Dominion has African American resource groups through which it creates mentorships with students at local HBCUs, and this is something other manufacturers can replicate no matter where they may be located, she said.
  • “We’re building [those] relationships by offering what we have as well as listening,” she said. “It’s, ‘What do you need?’”
  • Dominion has also reached out to graduate and Ph.D. students at Howard University’s Department of Economics for third-party, independent research purposes. “Students get cases studies and get to know the company” that way, she said.

Leverage alumni: Those who attended HBCUs and are now in the workforce are frequently a manufacturer’s best bet when it comes to recruitment.

  • Intel has relied on HBCU-alumni employees to help forge relationships with key schools, Ross said. “That’s one way to start with the engagement.”
  • For Dominion, alumni are a primary connector to HBCUs. “Alumni and their networks” are key to keeping open communication between the company and the schools, Byrd said.

Be a meaningful place to work: Manufacturers should recognize that younger generations of workers and those coming out of college now want something different from employers than previous generations.

  • “There’s a different mindset in [those] coming into the workforce now,” Ross said. “They care about environmental sustainability, they care about their communities, they want to stay local.” To that end, manufacturers should ensure they have sound corporate social responsibility programs in place and “be vocal about your shared values.”
  • The opportunities to guest lecture and mentor students at their alma maters seem to “really be driving employee engagement” and retention, Byrd said. Employees “find that rewarding. They get to give back to their community.”
  • In addition, manufacturers should be vocal about their support of justice, Byrd continued, adding that Dominion leadership came out with a statement condemning the murder of George Floyd soon after the event. That C-suite move had a profound impact on employees, Byrd said.

The last word: Manufacturers of all sizes and types can be successful at HBCU engagement—and it will be well worth their time. “The HBCUs are gems,” Byrd said. “They are pillars in our community. What better place to look to grow innovation?”

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