Gains in diversity equal gains for recruitment potential

February 12, 2011
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The perception of Grand Rapids to most of those out in the world is — still — that of an old, conservative, Dutch community, a community perceived as less diverse than its progressing peers, which also have become strongholds of creative class growth.

Diversity repeatedly has been cited as the shortcoming to keeping talented workers in the West Michigan region and to attracting new talent. Such has been cited by business categories as diverse as law firms, health care and educational institutions.

Last week the Business Journal saluted the 2010 accomplishments at Gentex Corp., naming it Newsmaker of the Year. Vice President of Human Resources Bruce Los, in remarks following the announcement, candidly said Gentex will remain in West Michigan as long as it is able to attract the talented and skilled workers the company must have as it emerges a leader in high-tech electronics. The company’s leadership is already well established in the automotive and aeronautics sector, and other industries are likely to benefit from the more than 200 patents held by this company of intellectual property and specialty products.

Changing the perception of a “Dutch” community is not much less difficult than changing the perception of a “dead” Detroit, but the headline on page 1 this week is some calculation of progress.

In five years — between 2002 and 2007 — Kent County was home to an almost 80 percent increase in the number of black-owned businesses, according to the U.S. Census Bureau Survey of Business Owners. Payroll from black-owned businesses in the city of Grand Rapids alone reached $39 million. The numbers grew in the suburban areas, too, with gains in Kentwood and Wyoming.

It must be said that the city’s commitment to diversity through minority bidding and contracting procedures surely assisted such growth, keeping a spotlight on minority-owned businesses, sharing their expertise with the broader community and providing opportunities to connect and partner with “established” businesses.

The economic census was conducted in 2007, and in the time since, the courts have struck down minority “quota” programs, including those so successfully run by the city.

One can hope that the increased numbers provide deeper roots and greater networking for minority community businesses and increased opportunities for success. But the Business Journal notes that the impact of the Great Recession on the community as a whole also will have its toll in this regard.

West Michigan business leaders have sustained several nonprofit diversity initiatives, and they are all the more important as this region emerges from the recession and begins again to grow. So, too, is the record of gains. The economic census data must be declared in new initiatives, even and especially by those touting quality of life issues that so bless this region, like those marketed by the Experience Grand Rapids convention and visitors bureau.

How else will perceptions change, to help create a new reality?

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