Growing up in a small town in Iowa, Debra Schrampfer was just like everybody else — same ethnicity, same religion, same experiences.
“Except,” she said, “I was gay.”
Fast-forward to adulthood and Schrampfer, now 43, lands a job working in brand management for the continent's largest railroad, Union Pacific. And, in hopes of forming a community at U.P., she helped to launch BRIDGES, an employee resource group aimed at the company's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees and allies. Through the newest of U.P.'s eight employee resource groups, Schrampfer has observed how celebrating differences “brings us together and creates a unified workforce.”
The Omaha-based railroad says that's the very intent of the groups — to provide a vehicle for workers seeking to expand their networks within the company and across the industry.
“With a 150-year-old legacy, we know that companies only survive and prosper if they evolve,” Schrampfer said. “Diversity gives us that: different perspectives, different skills.”
This week is Omaha Diversity Week, when Omaha-Council Bluffs metro employers highlight cultural diversity. Spearheaded by U.P., ConAgra Foods, Mutual of Omaha, the Omaha Public Power District and Wells Fargo, the annual event includes a job fair and a series of other events.
The week was organized with help from contributing sponsors the AIM Institute, Aerotek, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Nebraska, First Data, Kiewit, the City of Omaha, the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, The World-Herald, Diversity Best Practices, the Urban League of Nebraska and Valmont. In all, about 57 employers are participating and even more are sending their employees to various events throughout the week.
The companies that are part of the fifth annual diversity week are among those in the metro area that recognize hiring diverse populations can play a role in the company's success.
As U.P. Chairman Jim Young once said: It's important to the strength of the railroads' franchise that its workforce reflect the diversity of its customer base and the communities in which they live and work because “there is no better way to remain an innovative, industry-leading company than by drawing upon the expertise and experiences of people from all backgrounds.”
Nationally, more than 320 executives who oversee their companies' diversity and inclusion programs said in a Forbes Insights survey two years ago that diversity is a key driver of innovation and a critical component of competing globally. While progress has been made, the survey revealed that improvement is still needed in the areas of disability and age.
National unemployment numbers show that minority groups lag behind. In August, the unemployment rate for black and Hispanic populations was 13 percent and 9.3 percent, respectively, compared with a national average of 7.3 percent.
U.P.'s minority workforce has grown by about 17 percent in the past decade. In Omaha, the growth rate has been even higher. Considering the size of the company — about 46,000 employees total — the railroad is making good progress and expects its minority workforce to continue to grow, spokesman Mark Davis said.
A look at its senior staff and management shows the company's workforce demographics have shifted, he said.
That's led to some accolades in the past year. Eric Butler, executive vice president of marketing and sales, was named one of corporate America's most powerful executives by Black Enterprise magazine. Ivan Jaime, director of border policy and community affairs, was presented a Young Hispanic Corporate Achievers Award by the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility. And Gayla Thal, senior vice president of law and general counsel, was recognized as a woman worth watching in Profiles in Diversity Journal.
This year, for the fifth consecutive year, U.P. was named a Best Diversity Company by the readers of Diversity Careers in Engineering and Information Technology.
In addition to hiring goals, U.P. aims to offer minority and women-owned businesses the opportunity to compete with other suppliers and contractors serving the railroad. The railroad's spending with diverse suppliers grew 7 percent each year from 2007 to 2012, including a 16 percent bump over 2011, according to U.P.
Twenty-nine-year-old Shanker Chalekode, who is the director of sales-carload solutions for Union Pacific Distributions Services and president of U.P.'s Asian Employee Resource Organization, or AERO, said the growing number of women and minorities in the company's leadership is a signal that the railroad is progressing from the one-time “old boys network” stereotype.
“If you look at the diversity of our leaders and your own ability to rise to that level, it's just incredible,” he said.
Diversity in the rail industry in general has seen some improvement because railroad employment has stabilized and, as retirements grew and economic conditions improved, railroads have seized an opportunity to better diversify workforces, according to the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board.
Between 2003 and 2013, the percentage of African-American rail employees grew slightly, from 15.3 percent to 15.8 percent, while the percentage of Hispanic employees grew from 7.9 percent to 11.3 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The types of jobs landed by African-American and Hispanic employees have changed, too, to more management positions. African-American employees in the railroad conductors and yardmasters category increased from a little more than 3,200 in 2005 to 8,400 in 2012. For Hispanics, the jump was from 1,600 railroad conductors and yardmasters in 2005 to 6,500 in 2012.
Between 2003 and 2012, the percentage of female employees in the railroad industry declined, from 10.5 percent to 9.6 percent. However, the kinds of jobs they landed grew dramatically. In 2005, there were fewer than 400 women in the railroad conductor and yardmasters category. In 2012, there were more than 2,900.
Numbers by the Railroad Retirement Board — the group says women in railroading grew from 8.6 percent in 1997 to 9.2 percent in 2010 — differ slightly because they take into account only railroads covered by their retirement system.
Still, challenges remain in promoting diversity, said Yvonne Method-Walker, director of diversity for U.P. People resist change, stereotypes are hard to break and discussions about topics surrounding diversity, like race, can be difficult because “people don't want to talk about it in a meaningful way,” she said. It's also difficult for some to get past physical appearance, whether it's a matter of old versus young or gay versus straight.
“We've got to get beyond what people look like,” Method-Walker said.
At U.P. and various Omaha companies, the efforts to create a diverse workforce mean using a multifaceted approach to recruit, retain and develop employees.
Method-Walker said the company she works for today isn't the same she went to work for 33 years ago. U.P., and the railroad industry in general, has a reputation for being an old organization largely dominated by white men. In time, it's focused on changing that by recruiting from diverse schools and taking closer note of internal referrals. The company has recruited more from historically black colleges, Hispanic-serving institutions and universities and schools with highly diverse populations, such as the University of Michigan.
Expanding the playing field to diverse applicants shouldn't be confused with diverse employees getting preferential treatment, Method-Walker said. U.P.'s efforts are meant to increase the candidate pool to get the most qualified employees and make the job-posting system more transparent. That alone has had an “amazing impact on the organization,” she said.
The retention aspect is more challenging. Omaha “can be a tough sell” for someone with no roots here, Method-Walker said.
What's helped are the company's resource groups, which in addition to BRIDGES and AERO include the Black Employee Network; Lead, Educate, Achieve and Develop (LEAD) women's initiative; Latino Employee Network; UP Ties for emerging professionals or those with the company five years or fewer; Council of Native American Heritage; and UP Vets, or military veterans.
The groups are largely started by employees, and any group can form if it gathers dues-paying members, defines goals and holds meetings and events.
ConAgra's employee resource network groups are “a key ingredient in our recipe for creating a diverse and inclusive culture,” the company said, and include ones geared toward Asian, black, Latino, LGBT and allies, female and young professional employees. Wells Fargo has a Latino Team Member Network and a Women's Network, plus a “green” team for those focused on the environment.
OPPD has employee resource groups for young professionals and engineers and is relaunching a women's group and black employee and multicultural group. Mutual of Omaha has groups for young professional, Latino, black, LGBT and wealth of wisdom, or more tenured, employees.
The companies said the groups aren't limited to people who identify with the name of the group; they are for anyone to join.
U.P.'s groups — the company's first was its network for black employees established in 1979 in Omaha with just four employees — undergo an annual review with senior-level staff to explain how they're working to retain employees. They plan conferences and host cultural events such as salsa contests and demonstrations of Native American dance. They also get together just for fun.
“Maybe most important is our community outreach,” Schrampfer said, noting opportunities like participating in Big Brothers Big Sisters. Other groups, such as the San Antonio chapter of U.P.'s Latino Employee Network, have taken rail safety messages to the Spanish-speaking community.
Each of those efforts contributes to an employee's development. Diversity training also helps employees get more comfortable with cultural differences and spark meaningful discussions. Cultural familiarity, Method-Walker said, debunks myths employees may believe about a certain population.
For the most part, employees are open to the opportunities diverse populations offer, she said. They understand it can broaden one's life and enrich one's perspective — two keys to unlocking business benefits, too, she said.
Schrampfer said while BRIDGES has helped her find a special home at U.P., she's always been treated with respect from other employees. For her, the group has created a stronger sense of loyalty toward the railroad because she knows she has a safe place to land where she can come honestly with successes or concerns.
“It makes me work harder and be more determined that I bring value to my company every day,” she said.
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Color-coded categories an aid at job fair
About 750 job seekers armed with resumes and confidence are expected to flood the Celebrate Diversity Job Fair from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday.
New this year is that job seekers will arrive at the Ramada Plaza convention center near 72nd and Grover Streets and be greeted with a list of seven categories of jobs. They'll attach a color corresponding to a category — engineering, for example — to their name tags to represent what kind of job they're seeking. Employers will have color-coded ribbons at their tables representing the types of jobs they offer.
The color coding is meant to help job seekers and employers easily connect, said Joyce Cooper, manager of corporate diversity and advocacy at Omaha Public Power District.
“I work a lot of job fairs, and most people just wander through. If you have a friendly face, they might approach you,” she said.
The job fair, hosted by The World Herald in partnership with the Urban League of Nebraska and Omaha Diversity Week's sponsoring companies, will bring prospective employees together with more than 40 companies and offer workshops on resume critiquing, making the most of a job fair, navigating a successful midcareer change and how not to get fired from a job once you land it.
Back from last year is a computer lab enabling job seekers to submit applications. Private rooms for on-the-spot interviews to take place will be available, too.
Other planned events during Omaha Diversity Week include:
» Monday: Kickoff reception featuring guest speaker poet Joaquin Zihuatanejo, from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the Mutual of Omaha Dome, Dodge and 33rd Streets. Capacity has been filled.
» Tuesday: Networking event from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Love's Jazz & Arts Center, 2510 N. 24th St. Invitation only.
» Wednesday: Midlevel Managers Symposium featuring keynote speaker Jeffery Smith, vice president of operations at Diversity Best Practices, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Hilton Omaha, 1001 Cass St. Limited space available.
» Saturday: Community Truck Load Sale Day of Service from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the ConAgra Foods parking lot, 5645 N. 90th St. near Fort Street. Open to the public. Members of the public can purchase boxes of donated ConAgra Foods for discounted prices, varying between $5 and $10. Cash only. A portion of the proceeds will go to the United Way of the Midlands.