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Networking

VEDN brings Vermont employers together to support diversity

The Vermont Employers Diversity Network is working to create a welcoming environment throughout the state


Anna Niemiec of IBM: understanding and welcoming people, ideas and approaches. Corporate giants like IBM, General Dynamics and GE have long histories of involvement with diversity. Anna Niemiec, a systems analyst and co-chair of the diversity council at IBM Microelectronics in Burlington, VT, notes that “For us, diversity is not just a nice thing to do. It is a critical imperative to our business success.

“The demographics of the U.S. workforce and of our clients are both changing. If we don’t understand and welcome different people, ideas and approaches, we are not going to survive.”

In most large companies, diversity policies and practices are created at corporate headquarters, and refined in the major cities where U.S. corporations tend to locate their largest operations.

But not all company employees work in big cities. EmployeesJan Hewitt of General Dynamics: networking with a number of companies. may be relocated to meet corporate or personal career goals. A career-building opportunity may open up in a spot where the local population is not especially diverse, and robust support for diversity within the corporation does not necessarily ensure a welcoming atmosphere in the community at large, Niemiec explains.

Changing demographics in New England
Both Vermont and its neighbor New Hampshire still have some of the lowest percentages of people of color in the U.S. But northern New England is changing. In Burlington, VT, Niemiec notes, “Twenty-seven different languages are spoken in our high schools!

“It’s probably a small change numerically but it does have an impact.”Kim Murphy of GE Healthcare IT: tapping into an established network.

Similar changes have taken place in Maine cities. And southern New Hampshire, which borders the highly diverse upper edge of the Massachusetts high-tech corridor, has seen a steady increase in the percentage of residents with Latino, African, African American and other diverse backgrounds in the last few years.

It started at diversity day
Vermont, where IBM Microelectronics, General Dynamics, GE Healthcare and several other technology-intensive companies have sizable sites, may soon see some substantive changes. The newly formed Vermont Employers Diversity Network (VEDN) aims to make its members’ communities more diversity-friendly. VEDN held its first major event in March 2008, and is actively planning more.

The network was an outgrowth of a diversity day at IBM’s Burlington site, says Marie Houghton, who manages corporate citizenship and corporate affairs for IBM in Vermont. “It was an event that engaged everyone from senior and executive management to individual employees.

“We put on workshops, town hall meetings with executives, round-table mentoring opportunities, a career-development event and more, all under the diversity umbrella,” she reports. “We found that while we as a company deeply value cultural and racial diversity, our employees and their families who live here in the community do have some issues, like the lack of diversity in teachers and social service workers.”

A network is born
“We’d been thinking for a while about working with the community on the topic of diversity,” Houghton recalls. “We have connections with community resources like the education establishment and social services. Now we began to consider how we could reach out to other employers in the business community to raise awareness, build networking opportunities and help one another with diversity issues.”

Houghton tapped into her network of local executives. Soon a core steering group from IBM Microelectronics, General Dynamics Armament and Technical Products and GE Healthcare IT started to work on staging a diversity luncheon. It took place this March.

Benefits of networking
Companies involved in the network see a variety of potential benefits. General Dynamics Armament and Technical Products is represented on the steering group by Jan Hewitt, principal HR specialist.

“I like networking with a number of companies, learning about their practices and telling them about ours,” she says. “I like being able to pick up the phone and tell other HR people that I’m hiring a diverse candidate to start work next month, and there’s a spouse who might be of interest to them.”

Kim Murphy, a senior HR manager at GE Healthcare IT, is excited about the opportunity to share diversity-related information with the employer community. “Our recent event for employers was well attended and we got great feedback. That reinforced our mission to build best-practices sharing.

“Vermont employers are looking for guidance, and it’s exciting to tap into a huge global network that’s already established. If we can bring some of that to Burlington and translate it to our much smaller setting, we’ll have a more welcoming community. That will help us recruit and retain diverse employees in this area.”

Helping each other
“It’s not just IBM and GE Healthcare and General Dynamics. There are many small businesses tucked away in rural Vermont that have a global presence,” Houghton says. “As major corporations and organizations we’ve been working on these issues in many different ways, but that’s not necessarily the case with smaller employers.”

When large corporations share their knowledge, tested tools and even training sessions, there’s a terrific benefit to the business community as a whole, she explains.

“A twenty-person business may not be able to support affinity groups, but it may have tried other kinds of approaches with good success,” says Niemiec. And of course smaller companies can participate in shared events.

Comfort for transplants
IBM brings employees from around the world to its Burlington site, some for extended periods. “We have a partnership with a company in Japan which recently sent over several engineers with their families,” Niemiec.

“We worked with our Asian affinity group to figure out what they’d need. We wanted them to be sure their families were comfortable so they could be productive here.”

High tech on Lake Champlain
Its 5,400 employees make IBM Microelectronics the largest private employer in Vermont. General Dynamics’ Vermont facility employs more than 450 professionals, mostly in engineering and program management. GE’s facility, focused on healthcare IT, has more than 800.

In fact, there are jobs in Burlington for technical pros in areas from design engineering to software support. “We’re actively recruiting,” notes General Dynamics’ Hewitt; GE Healthcare IT has positions in software engineering and applications technology, Murphy says.

Other employers currently involved in the VEDN include the Vermont Air and Army National Guards, Champlain College, Fairpoint (formerly Verizon) Communications, and the United Way of Chittenden County. The well-attended March luncheon indicated a high level of interest among other companies, the organizers feel.

Next steps
Another event, this one with a nationally known speaker, is a possibility for 2009. The network organizers are also considering an honor roll or awards program for companies and individuals contributing to the regional diversity effort. And VEDN hopes to launch its website soon.

As Jan Hewitt puts it, VEDN is “dedicated to supporting and promoting a welcoming environment for customers, employees, and their families through education and outreach.

“We are very excited about the organization,” she says.

D/C

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