If you grew up in New Hampshire any time before the last decade or so, the idea of something called the Diversity Workforce Coalition might have you scratching your head.
After all, as the late North Country political leader Ray Burton reportedly once said, the Granite State is plenty diverse, with a healthy mix of Democrats, Republicans and undeclared.
Steve Norton shared that anecdote to offer a bit of levity during a panel talk Thursday during the debut public meeting of the new nonprofit. The Diversity Workforce Coalition aims to help businesses face the challenges of the 21st century workplace, one that has changed a bit since baby boomers and Gen Xers like Norton came of age.
For Norton, executive director of the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies, the opportunity to interact with other races came rather late in his youth. Norton said he was 12 years old the first time he saw a black person in New Hampshire. Norton also discussed differences in educational attainment in various parts of the state and other factors that make us different beyond just race.
"'Diversity' is often code for race and ethnicity. We believe, like you all believe, that it's much broader than that," Norton told the group gathered for a breakfast meeting at Birch Hill Terrace.
New Hampshire's minority population, according to the 2010 Census, has grown to 7.7 percent and is the state's fastest growing segment. While minorities have settled in various parts of the state, Southern New Hampshire has the biggest concentration. Of the more than 15,000 people who identify themselves as black or African-American, about 4,500 live in Manchester, and about 2,300 live in Nashua. Of the nearly 37,000 Hispanic residents in the state, about 8,800 live in Manchester, and 8,500 live in Nashua.
The state's foreign-born population grew to 72,000 people in 2005, according to Census figures, representing about 6 percent of the state's population, and bringing with them a variety of other languages and cultures that present challenges for schools and workplaces.
Like the rest of the country, the demographics of New Hampshire are changing. And businesses need to adapt if they expect to be able to find the workers they need and find markets for their products and services. At the same New Hampshire is growing more diverse, its population is getting older. Our median age is the third oldest in the country, Norton noted.
Cathy Chesley, director of immigration and refugee services for New Hampshire Catholic Charities, said the biggest challenge with preparing immigrants for the workforce is language and recounted the difficulty one working mom faced learning English while also trying to support her family.
Chesley noted the resourcefulness of immigrants and cited a 2011 Partnership for a New American Economy study, as reported by Forbes, that found 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children, including Apple, Disney, Google, Oracle and General Electric.
"Employers need to understand that it's in their best interest to support (immigration) reform," she said.
The coalition's mission is to "promote diversity in the workplace through education, training, enhanced networking opportunities, and to identify and connect resources to its members and the public."
Coalition director John Wilson, an immigration attorney with GoffWilson in Concord, said one of its goals is to help businesses that want to diversity their workforce connect with potential employees.
"We will find over the years that a more diverse workforce produces a better bottom line for the business and produces a better product for the business," Wilson said during his opening remarks.
The employers and community members who began forming this group 18 months ago are driven by more than just a sense of ethics and fairness. It's about the health of the state's economy.
"People generally think that immigrants provide services at the low-end of the pay scale.
The truth is it's at both ends," Norton said. "Immigration serves to reduce the friction in the labor market both in the low-end jobs and the high-end jobs. We don't have enough people to fill our high advanced-manufacturing, high-knowledge management jobs. And what we have historically done is import them."
New Hampshire has not necessarily been the most friendly place for the foreign-born workers that are so highly sought by information technology companies, Norton said.
New Hampshire also needs to recognize that the up-and-coming millennial generation has a different worldview.
They've grown up with diversity and expect to see it in the workplace.
And they also want to work for companies that embrace it.
Young workers researching potential employers turn to the back of a company's annual report to see if people who share their race, gender or ethnicity are among the company's executives or board of directors, said Andrew Smith, a management consultant on the panel who specializes in diversity issues and leadership development.
"They don't want to be Jackie Robinson. They want to see someone who looks like them," he said.
Mike Cote is business editor at the Union Leader. Contact him at 668-4321 ext. 324 or email@example.com.