Mel Jones is Northwest Diversity Manager for Skanska USA, a multibillion dollar international construction and development company. Before joining Skanska, Jones was a civil engineer and owned his own engineering design company. As an African American business owner, Jones experienced the subtle-yet-real vestiges of race discrimination—quiet exclusion, “accidental” omission on project bid invitations, and specious excuses for opportunities denied.

In this interview, Jones shares what he has done since taking on the Diversity Manager role at Skanska.

Jathan Janove: Employers often describe diversity as a core value or strategic goal, yet their efforts to foster diversity fall short. Why?

Mel Jones: Many companies profess a commitment to diversity. They make a few gestures, take a step here or there, but never approach it with the seriousness they would if, for example, they were doing a major project for an important client.

I liken it to treating diabetes. If you’re diagnosed and I’m your doctor, I can prescribe medication. However, if you’re really committed to minimizing the effects of this condition on your life, we will develop a holistic approach that includes exercise, nutrition, and other steps.

JJ: What diversity challenges have you faced at Skanska?

MJ: Skanska is an enormous, worldwide construction company. Yet for the most part, we don’t do the majority of the building. Instead, we put together projects for clients, and assemble and manage subcontractors that do the majority of the construction work. Many of our clients give strong preference to and in some cases require participation of minority and women-owned companies. These clients include not only government entities, but companies like Boeing and Microsoft.

While desiring or even insisting on diversity, clients also want the work done on time, per budget, and within specifications.

This creates a challenge in not only finding and recruiting minority and women-owned companies, but in making sure they meet project expectations.

JJ: What have you done to meet this challenge?

MJ: In the division for which I’m responsible, the most effective thing has been to create a downstream professional development program.

JJ: What do you mean?

MJ: We designed and implemented a training program for subcontractors and small business owners.

JJ: How did you develop the curriculum?

MJ: We identified the principal areas in which subcontractors tend to fall short of expectations. When subcontractors fall short, typically it involves problems in one or more of these areas. So we share knowledge and teach skills to help ensure their success with accounting, project management, scheduling, bidding, troubleshooting, and so on.

Classes are taught by some of our most experienced and able professionals. As part of our own diversity initiative, the senior professional (often a white male) is paired with a promising minority or female employee who, with the senior professional’s guidance, does most of the in-class presentation.

JJ: Are program graduates promised construction jobs with Skanska?

MJ: Graduating doesn’t guarantee you work. However, it goes a long way in your favor. Also, as a graduate, you become eligible for our mentor program where you receive ongoing training, coaching, and networking opportunities.

JJ: Are you worried about aiding your competitors by raising the effectiveness of subcontractors they may use?

MJ: We understand that our program can help our competitors. Nevertheless, we believe that by improving the quality of the work subcontractors do, we benefit our overall industry, which in turn benefits Skanska.

JJ: Beyond supporting an important cause, what benefits has Skanska reaped from this program?

MJ: Several. First, the program has improved project performance. Second, it has been very helpful in recruiting minority and women-owned subcontractors. Third, it has helped us internally with our own diversity initiatives. Fourth, it has improved our effectiveness in competing for work. Indeed, I’ve been spending up to 40 percent of my time on business development. Our sales people understand that having me discuss Skanska’s diversity programs helps them bring in business and win work.

JJ: What’s your advice to companies that want to get serious about diversity?

MJ: Don’t just look at diversity as a hiring or recruitment strategy. Focus on the professional development and growth of your diverse employees. Focus on the contributions those diverse backgrounds and experiences can add to your brain trust. Get involved with learning how to include that diversity in long-term corporate strategies as a competitive advantage. In the long run, this focus will prove valuable in the quality of work they do as well as in recruitment and retention.

Mel Jones is Northwest Diversity Manager for Skanska USA.