Staffing for Diversity: The Business Case for an Inclusive Information Technology Workforce

Women, minorities and immigrants will make up a big part of the future information technology workforce. But as Southern Company has discovered, staffing for diversity isn't easy. Find out how the regional utility conglomerate has tried to make its workplace more welcoming.

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Two Steps Forward, Then There's Push-Back

When you meet Tanya Harvell, she seems born for management, oozing the kind of quiet poise that says, "I've got this," even when answering sensitive questions. Harvell, 32, grew up in Selma, Ala. Her father was a forklift driver. Her mother, who works for the local housing authority, has held a variety of jobs. Harvell was the first in her family to attend a four-year college.

Tanya Harvell

Name: Tanya Harvell

Position: Systems Support Project Manager

Age: 32

Raised: Selma, Ala.

Education: BS, Electrical Engineering, University of Alabama; MBA, Georgia State University

Time at Southern Company: 9 years

After earning her degree in electrical engineering from the University of Alabama, Harvell turned down a job at Southern and went to the telecom company where she'd interned. She lasted a year. Harvell was going places; the company was not. "There weren't a lot of opportunities for growth," she says.

Harvell took a job in network engineering at Southern where she was the only woman and the only African-American. It didn't matter to her. In college, "my classes were predominantly white male," Harvell says. "I knew what I would be getting into going into engineering. You get used to it."

During her seven years in network and systems engineering, Harvell's responsibilities changed, but her status as the lone woman didn't. "After six months, they brought in a guy who was African-American," Harvell says. Not that it bothered her. "I was fortunate in that I worked with some guys that were open to training me as well as listening to my ideas."

Harvell, who got her MBA last July, is a newly minted manager (her title is systems support project manager). She's also been chosen for IT's leadership development program, created in 2004 to feed employees' desire for more career development. The program provides accelerated development opportunities and exposure to senior management.

Harvell's rise seems a sign of success for Southern's IT diversity and inclusion efforts. But not everyone sees things that way. "After we kicked off our leadership development program, word got out that if you weren't female or minority, you couldn't be in that group," recalls Blalock. "Which is not true." To correct misconceptions, Blalock's senior leadership team lets newly promoted workers include their pictures with job announcements.

But some minds are hard to change. "The older white males, they can feel excluded," acknowledges Harvell. "It wasn't just the leadership development program. If you hired someone new, and that person happened to be minority or female, they thought that was why they were hired." So Blalock took steps to make the hiring process less opaque. (For more on Southern's new, transparent hiring process, see our sidebar "Proving the Best Candidate Gets the Job.")

As for what Harvell thinks would make Southern's IT environment more diverse: Nearly nine years in, she's still a relative newbie. "What I would like to see—and we are working on it—is bringing in more people from the outside. Getting that diversity of thought would be good."

Anyone Can Be an Outsider

Mike Erickson's most memorable brush with "diversity" was his first day as IT leader at Plant Hatch, a Southern-operated nuclear plant longitudinally centered between Macon and Savannah and 30 miles south. It's officially located 10 miles north of Baxley, Ga.—population about 4,000—but many employees commute from Vidalia (famous for its sweet onions), more than twice Baxley's size and 20 minutes up the road. Erickson affectionately refers to the "metro" Bax­ley area as May­berry.

Mike Erickson

Name: Mike Erickson

Position: IT Support, Edwin I. Hatch Nuclear Plant

Age: 56

Raised: Son of Presbyterian minister who moved around a lot

Education: BS, Industrial Construction Management, Colorado State University

Time at Southern Company: 30.5 years

There was no love lost, however, when Erickson arrived at the plant eight years ago after more than two decades at Southern Nuclear and Southern Company Services. "I was the corporate guy. And corporate was the enemy," he says.

It was a lot like his first experience with the Southern subsidiary Alabama Power 30 years earlier. On a break from Colorado State University, he'd interned for six months at Alabama Power. But he didn't fit into the Birmingham scene. As a young white guy, he didn't look much different from his coworkers. But he felt different. "All everyone wanted to talk about was Alabama and Auburn football," he recalls. Erickson left, only to return to Southern a year later from California with a wife and a new appreciation for the stability of a Southern career.

Erickson, 56, can no longer plead outsider status, but he can sympathize. That's important because as a hiring manager he's eager to bring in fresh blood. Erickson has made some progress in his mini-diversity effort. An employee with 33 years of seniority works alongside his latest hire, two years out of school. One woman—a nondegreed specialist—has joined IT from another part of the plant. But to his dismay, he hasn't been able to hire minority candidates. "It's not like the Atlanta or Birmingham market," says Erickson. In a landscape dominated by onion fields, many would-be minority hires leave for school and don't return. "You have to import skilled, diverse candidates from other parts of the state or country," says Erickson. "And then once they're here, many of them tend to not hang around."

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