People of Color Stand Out In A Mostly White Industry

People of Color Stand Out In A Mostly White Industry

By Keith Norbury

Service Truck Magazine

April 4, 2016
At industry events like the annual NTEA Work Truck Show in Indianapolis, Todd Hannum stands out. It’s not just because of his welcoming demeanor and beaming smile that can draw you in from 50 feet away. He just looks different. In a sea of white faces, Hannum’s is one of the few black ones.

“Anywhere you go in this industry, there aren’t many African Americans, black people working, particularly in sales or management but there are also aren’t very many ladies either,” said Hannum, a national accounts manager with Auto Crane who joined the company two-and-a-half years ago after 15 years with Caterpillar. “And I’ve noticed that across the board. It’s not just Auto Crane but it’s generally all truck crane manufacturers, even the dealer networks, and also a lot of the customer base as well.”

James Brown has noticed it too, and he’s been in the industry for 25 years. The general manager of Cannon Truck Equipment in the Detroit suburb of Shelby Charter Township, Brown himself does a double-take when he sees someone like Hannum at industry event. “It’s like whoa, wait a minute, how did you get in here?” Brown said with a laugh during a recent interview.

It’s not just African Americans like Hannum and Brown who have noticed a lack of diversity in their industry. At the 2015 Work Truck Show’s President’s Breakfast, a white man in the audience asked keynote speaker Tony Dungy, a former National Football League coach, what the industry could do to engage more minorities to work in the industry.

Dungy, the first African American head coach to lead a team to victory in the Super Bowl, said the biggest thing is to “let people know that they have a chance.” Dungy added that he wasn’t talking about programs that make things unfair for some and advantageous for others but “just letting people know there are opportunities and their efforts will be rewarded.”

“Let people know they have a chance.” — Tony Dungy, former NFL head coach.

Industry specific statistics lacking

In this article, and related stories in this edition, Service Truck Magazine examines why the service truck industries are so overwhelmingly white and what might be done to encourage more ethnic diversity.

The National Truck Equipment Association, which organizes the Work Truck Show, doesn’t have any statistics on the numbers of minorities in the industry. Nor did the NTEA respond to a request to interview someone about diversity in the industry.

That lack of information indicates to Brown, whose company is a dealer for the likes of Auto Crane, that the NTEA doesn’t regard the lack of diversity as big concern.

“They don’t see anything wrong with that picture,” Brown said. “OK, that’s it. It’s kind of hard to fix what you don’t see as being a problem.”

The NTEA does note that the industry is aging. In a posting on the association website, Christopher Lyon, the organization’s director of fleet relations, pointed out that 70 percent of fleet managers are ages 40 to 60.

“It’s an old boy network and game that I’ll tell you right now you have to be very very resilient to deal with or to get into this game if you’re African American,” Brown said. “I’m going to tell you straight up, it’s not easy.”

Brown’s own estimate is that probably less than half a percent of attendees at industry shows are African American.

“Even, for example, the mechanics that put our trucks together there’s a very low ratio of African American mechanics that do this,” Brown said.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures lend credence to that assertion.

National labor stats offer clues

Blacks made up 12 percent of the U.S. labor force in 2014, according to a recent BLS report. Yet for the category of heavy vehicle and mobile equipment service technicians and mechanics — who often use service trucks in their work — only 3.8 percent were African American, compared 92.9 percent who were white.

However, other mechanics trades have higher participation from blacks — 9.0 percent for automotive service technicians and mechanic; and 10.1 percent for miscellaneous vehicle and mobile equipment mechanics, installers, and repairers.

Meanwhile, blacks make up only 3.0 percent of CEOs, 4.2 percent of industrial production managers (89.4 percent for whites) 3.9 percent of marketing and sales managers (88.1 percent for whites) 3.3 percent of mechanical engineers (84.5 percent for whites, 9.9 percent for Asians) 5.2 percent of sheet metal workers, 6.8 percent of operating engineers and other construction equipment operators, 3.9 percent of machinists and just 0.7 percent of tool and die makers.

On the other hand, blacks make up a high percentage of security guards (30.3 percent), home health aides (35.9 percent) licensed practical and vocational nurses (27.9 percent), telemarketers (19.6 percent), and barbers (33.6 percent).

“So the companies that are in this industry are going to have to try much harder to change that for themselves if they want to try to attract good people from the African American, Latino, (and) the female base,” Hannum said.

No effort to avoid hiring blacks, but little effort to hire

Sheldon Thorpe, chief human resources officer at service truck manufacturer The Reading Group LLC, said a lack of minorities is probably true in many industries. However, he doesn’t think there is a concerted effort to avoid hiring minorities.

“But here’s what I think happens: If you think about the mechanics of a hire, one of the things, especially if you’re going to be at sales shows, people want people with prior industry experience,” said Thorpe, who is African American.

As far as Hannum is concerned, that might explain the lack of diversity in the industry, but it doesn’t excuse it.

“Whether it’s subconscious or conscious, I think the people know they’re not doing it,” Hannum said. “So I think that there’s not enough of an effort, and I think that people may know that they’re not putting in enough of an effort. It’s not pressing for them either.”

However, as people from varied backgrounds bring fresh ideas to the industry and those like Hannum and Brown show they can be successful, “it’s just like anything else,” Hannum said. “It’ll get on the radar.”

For Thorpe, as an HR professional, creating ethnic diversity in the work force isn’t top of his mind. “No. I don’t give it 30 seconds worth of thought,” he said. What he will aim for occasionally is diversity in gender, such as looking for a woman to fill a plant manager’s role.

“If you walk through our manufacturing plant, our hourly workforce is very racially diverse,” Thorpe said, pointing out later that “diverse” is a politically correct term that he never uses. (Similarly, Hannum said he hates the expression “minorities.”)

Reading plant ethnically diverse as anywhere

“You walk through that plant and it’s as ethnically diverse as any place you’re going to find in America,” Thorpe said.

According to the 2010 Census, the city of Reading, Pa., was 13.2 percent black, just a tad higher than the 12.6 percent for the U.S. as a whole. For Berks County, which encompasses Reading, blacks made up 4.9 percent in 2010 although that figure was estimated at 6.7 percent in 2014.

About 500 of Readings 600 employees work in the plant. And their demographics mirror that of the community, Thorpe said, noting that Spanish music often wafts in from across the street. (In 2010, 58.2 percent or Reading city residents identified as Hispanic or Latino — however they could be of any race.)

Reading is good neighbor in an ethnically diverse neighborhood, Thorpe said. And that characteristic led the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to honor Reading last November with a Community Impact Corporate Award.

Berks County is also home to Morgan Corporation, which became a sister company to Reading when J.B. Poindexter & Inc., Morgan’s parent, bought Reading last November

Jaimie Laws, a marketing coordinator with Morgan, joined the company about a year ago. In that brief time, he has noticed “multiple nationalities” working in the corporate offices and the plant.

“I’m not quite sure of the diversity in other places in the industry,” Laws said. “I can only imagine that based on my experience at the NTEA show that it’s not very high.”

So far his own brief industry experience has been very good, going back to his job interview, which he described as one of the best he has ever had.

“I didn’t feel like there was any discrimination on anybody’s point and everybody seemed very welcoming and very nice,” said Laws, who had previously worked for a grocery wholesaler.

Hannum has had a similar experience at Auto Crane, saying that he felt like he belonged from the first interview. “ I never once felt like I couldn’t fit in there,” Hannum said.

But he and others interviewed for this article all could relate instances when others reacted to the color of their skin.

“I’m not naive. I’ve been in those situations many times in my life,” Laws said with a laugh. “So I can tell when they happen pretty much. And you know, it is what it is. Even though it’s 2015, issues still arise on that front.”

Play the cards you’re dealt

In the case of James Brown, when he first got into the sales end of the equipment industry, with a company that no longer exists, he was sent to work the Detroit territory, where most of the clients were African American.

“But I played that to my strength,” Brown said. “OK, you play the cards you’re dealt and you play it to your strength.”

Over time, he honed his sales chops — paid his dues, he said — and moved into the territory of white America. After several years, he moved over to Cannon, where he worked his way from sales person to the top position.

Unfortunately, Brown said, it can be difficult for an African American to stick with the industry long enough to be successful. He admitted he wouldn’t be where he is today if friends — white friends — hadn’t taken him under their wing. “It was kind of weird. It was kind of ‘he’s with us’ type of thing,” Brown said.

“If you don’t have some people that are going to stay in there with you,” Brown added, “you’re not going to get invited to the table. Especially you’re not going to get a seat at the head of the table like I have.”

Even so, despite working his way to the top, he still receives his share of sideways glances.

“When you’re an African American male and you run a business, and I will tell you straight up, there are a lot of days where I’ve had people think that I work for the white employees that I’m in charge of.”
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