With his knowledge of Alabama limited mainly to the racial inequality in its past, Solomon, 17, was somewhat surprised to see workers of many different racial and cultural backgrounds from the area and around the country.
“I could say I never expected to see what I saw today ... diversity and teamwork,” Solomon said.
In recent years, the Honda company has expanded its efforts to increase worker diversity at its facilities, including Honda Manufacturing of Alabama in Lincoln. Honda’s effort is part of a trend of companies in the state expanding employee diversity to improve business and meet the needs of a diversifying customer base, business experts say.
Solomon was one of around 60 high school students from Chicago and Detroit who visited the plant Thursday to learn about workforce diversity and employment opportunities as part of the Push for Excellence annual tour program. The program is part of the Chicago-based Rainbow Push Coalition, formed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Push for Excellence takes promising academic students to the East Coast and the South each year mainly to visit historically black colleges and universities.
Tina Donald, 17, of Chicago, said she is interested in a career in engineering, and she too was surprised by the level of diversity at the Honda plant.
“I thought everything would be local, that everyone would be from Alabama,” Donald said. “I was surprised to find that the workers came from all walks of life.”
Mike Oatridge, vice president of HMA, said worker diversity is important for the company as its customer base becomes more diverse.
“It’s really important to build what customers want,” Oatridge said. “We have to be aware that all those customers are different ... if we embrace those differences, then we can build the best possible product we can.”
To intensify its workforce diversity efforts, the American Honda Motor Company in 2007 created an office of inclusion and diversity, said Marc Burt, vice president of the office.
“Within employment, we have strategies to be more diverse in recruitment, in promotions and to reduce turnovers among minorities,” Burt said.
Lew Drummond, executive director of the Alabama Automotive Manufacturers Association, said Honda is not alone among the state’s auto manufacturing industry in wanting to diversify its workforce.
“I think it’s universally applied ... they see it as a good business model,” Drummond said. “I don’t know of any members of AAMA that are not engaging in that philosophy.”
Drummond said auto manufacturers and their suppliers want their workforces to better reflect their communities.
“It makes good business sense,” Drummond said.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the country’s labor force is becoming more diverse. Census numbers show that in June 2012, minorities made up 36 percent of American workers. The Census Bureau projects that by 2050, there will be no racial or ethnic group with majority in the country.
Chris Lewis, president and CEO of the South Region Minority Supplier Development Council, which works to increase opportunities for minority-run businesses, said he has seen efforts to increase diversity grow among Alabama’s companies over the years. The organization currently works with 50 Alabama companies on diversity and inclusion initiatives.
“Their customer base itself is becoming more diverse, so they are looking for opportunities to create more opportunities for people so more individuals of color can buy their products,” Lewis said.
Justin Edwards, an Alabama A&M graduate who was hired as a parts procurist for Honda five months ago, spoke to the visiting students about his educational experiences and the diversity at Honda.
“The people here really understand that we are all different,” Edwards said. “It feels wonderful to actually give back and show these students my testimony.”
Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.