Some fear minorities will be shut out of 21st century gold rush

Martin Daks//March 20, 2023

Some fear minorities will be shut out of 21st century gold rush

Martin Daks//March 20, 2023

When Gov. Phil Murphy unveiled his 2020 Energy Master Plan outlining strategies for New Jersey to reach 100% clean energy by 2050 (later amended to 2035), the selling points included a promise to create “good-paying jobs.” And the state Board of Public Utilities’ Supplier Diversity Development Council works to establish “effective working relationships amongst minority, women, veteran and service-disabled veteran owned businesses, and New Jersey public utilities and the Board of Public Utilities on matters relating to methods of reporting, measuring, and assessing the development of these relationships.” But some observers complain that although the taxpayer-funded efforts will create a lot of employment opportunities, minority business owners, contractors and employees may be left out. NJBIZ spoke with a variety of organizations to hear what they’re doing about it.

Steve Fleisher, PSEG executive director for HR, DEI, Talent Acquisition, PSEG and PSEG Long Island

“It is absolutely important” to increase diversity in the energy segment, said Steve Fleisher, executive director for HR, DEI, and Talent Acquisition at PSEG and PSEG Long Island. “We operate in a diverse service territory, and customers want to see themselves represented. It’s also important for us to be able to understand a diverse set of cultures and experience, and we need to maintain a diverse workforce to do that.”

Additionally, “When we have racial, gender and other diversity, we get more perspectives, and that helps us to operate even better.”

PSEG reaches out to diverse groups of people through a variety of channels, Fleisher said, including “Providing opportunities to partner with racially and ethnically diverse enterprises, and establishing strong partnerships with Historically Black Colleges & Universities and Hispanic-Serving Institutions to recruit diverse talent.”

In 2022, he noted, “We launched a pilot externship program intended to bring first-year students from HBCUs into the PSEG talent pipeline. In 2023, PSEG will extend its pilot externship program broadly to HSIs and first-year HSI students. Additional work with HSIs includes our longtime relationship with Montclair State University in the form of grants, recruitment, and the PSEG Institute for Sustainable Studies.”

The organization was recently recognized by Dow Jones, which named PSEG to its Sustainability Index, while Newsweek recognized the company on its 2023 list of America’s Most Responsible Companies.

“People understand that we offer great jobs, with competitive pay, and benefits, and the opportunity to gain experience and mobility,” Fleisher added. “But there needs to be more awareness about the opportunities in energy that exist for diverse communities. We’re trying to do that by being a strategic partner with Newark, Camden and other communities, educational institutions like Lincoln Tech and organizations like the Center for Energy Workforce Development.”

Jim Fakult, president of Jersey Central Power and Light

Utilities like FirstEnergy – parent company of JCP&L – are also reaching out to minorities, according to James Fakult, president of FirstEnergy’s New Jersey operations. “The best performing companies reflect the communities they serve, and we are no different,” he said. “We embrace diversity of thought, value individuality and encourage new perspectives – this environment helps us provide superior value to our customers and our investors. None of these are possible without a diverse workforce.”

He pointed to inventions like “the three-light traffic signal, refrigerated trucks, and automatic elevator doors,” which Fakult noted “were all invented by Black/African American engineers. As we continue to modernize and innovate, a diverse workforce is a key driver.”

To move the vision forward, FirstEnergy works closely with different groups and professional organizations “to build a workforce that embraces diversity as a powerful force for success,” he added. “This includes groups such as the American Association of Blacks in Energy, National Society of Hispanic MBAs, Society of Asian Scientists & Engineers, the Society of Women Engineers and many of the local veteran outreach organizations. Once they onboard, we support our diverse employees through employee Business Resource Groups that offer networking, mentoring, coaching, recruiting, individual development and community outreach opportunities.”

But recruiting diverse employees remains a challenge, Fakult noted. “We are working to get out into the communities and help diverse populations see the opportunities that exist in the STEM field,” he said. “But this is a significant change that’s being seen throughout the STEM fields. We are proud to have been recognized by major publications and organizations for our commitment to DE&I.”

Competitive advantage

Maria Diaz, director of diversity, equity and inclusion, New Jersey Resources

A diverse workforce can be a competitive advantage, since it lets companies tap into a broader range of ideas, according to Maria Diaz, the director of diversity equity and inclusion at New Jersey Resources. The Wall-headquartered company provides natural gas and clean energy services, including transportation, distribution, asset management, and home services. “New Jersey Resources is committed to advancing and encouraging diversity, equity, and inclusion,” she said. “DEI are core values that help drive everything we do. At NJR, we believe a company that values and supports its people is a stronger, more productive, and successful organization. Embracing DEI is a critical part of how we ensure we have a strong and growing business.”

The concept is especially important for the energy industry, “which is undergoing an important transition to cleaner forms of energy aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” she added. “Executing this transition in a way that keeps costs affordable and energy secure and reliable for families and businesses is going to take innovation and creativity. This doesn’t come from companies in general; it comes from our people. We strive to maintain a workforce that reflects the diversity of the communities we serve. Our largest subsidiary, New Jersey Natural Gas, serves customers predominantly in Monmouth, Ocean and Morris counties. Nearly 97% of our workforce is located within these counties as outlined in the company’s Corporate Sustainability Report, and we continue to make progress to increase the diversity of our workforce.”

Internally, NGR created Business Resource Groups, which “help bring unique cultures and perspectives of their members to life, allowing our employees to form valuable connections in-house and in our communities,” Diaz detailed. “These groups also allow for mentoring and greater awareness of our professional development programs and opportunities to help employees grow in their careers. In fact, over 21% of our employees participate in one or more BRGs.”

The company works with outside professional organizations and diverse chambers of commerce “to help increase our exposure as an employer, which allows us to grow diversity in our organization while fostering new relationships,” she noted. “On our supplier side, we actively seek to achieve a more diverse supplier base, which includes an emphasis on minority and women-owned business, small businesses, LGBTQ+ owned businesses, veteran, and individuals with disabilities owned businesses to increase diverse supplier spending. Our involvement with diverse chambers has also helped to attract and recruit new suppliers and continue to amplify this effort.”

At the same time, Diaz said that more needs to be done. “We also recognize that DEI is a journey. While we continue to make progress, we also know there is much more work to do. We support public policy that ensures equal opportunity for all people. That is critical to the advancement of DEI. Whether it is in the community, business or government, our voices and our actions are essential in building a more inclusive environment for everyone, and any efforts that are geared toward growing inclusion will be important in shaping our shared future.”

Why the state needs to put more muscle behind DEI

Back in 2020, African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey CEO John Harmon and Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey CEO Carlos Medina issued a joint announcement praising plans of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities and other agencies to implement a series of clean energy initiatives. “According to the proposal, the Board will ensure energy efficiency access for low-income communities; decrease energy burden; expand job opportunities; and increase economic development,” they wrote. But more than two years later, Harmon wonders if underserved populations will get a chance at the windfall of jobs.

“New Jersey does talk a good game, but we’re still not seeing equitable participation in the field,” he told NJBIZ. “Energy and other infrastructure opportunities are there, but policies to get more minorities involved are not.”

As founder of the AACCNJ, Harmon has a long history of advocating for minority participation, and he sounds frustrated. “Back in 2002 – when I was president and CEO of the Metropolitan Trenton African American Chamber of Commerce – then-Gov. Jim McGreevey issued an executive order requiring project labor (a form of pre-hire collective bargaining agreement) on most state-funded public works. That is in line with New Jersey’s pro-union stand, but at the same time, minorities tend to be under-represented in unions.”

Harmon said he had asked McGreevey to open up a statewide carveout – for projects valued up to $5 million – that would set aside bidding for non-union, minority-owned contractors and businesses. “New York State has a similar law, and President [Joseph] Biden has taken similar steps,” he said. “The private sector has been trying to be more inclusive, but we all pay taxes, so state-funded activity should be more inclusive. If specific policies are not in place, then the goals are just aspirational.”