A Conversation About Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Rubber Industry, Blog Post

A Conversation About Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in the Rubber Industry, Blog Post

I recently had the opportunity to participate on a panel sponsored by Rubber & Plastics News.  The subject of the panel was diversity, equity and including in the rubber industry. The panel included three other industry representatives, including Kim Dempsey-Miller, technical manager for RecycleDelphia and 2021 chair of the ACS Rubber Division; Cedric Glasper, CEO of Mechanical Rubber; and Lisa Thomas, head of human resources at Continental Tire the Americas.

The panelists shared past experiences with DEI, ways the companies we work for are addressing DEI, and efforts to engage younger generations in the rubber industry. The conversation began from a broader perspective on diversity and inclusion. The panel agreed that diversity isn’t a box you can tick. You don't reach a statistic and you’re “there.” If people don't feel included, you won’t retain the best and brightest and you won’t reap the benefits of diversity. Inclusion is the ultimate goal.

Ms. Dempsey-Miller mentioned the importance of learning from each other. To her point, if you find yourself in a situation with people who are not like you, having a learning attitude makes all the difference. Ask yourself, “What can I learn from this person?” Multiple studies have been conducted on the value and benefits of DEI. Fostering an appreciation for learning is one of the most important steps companies can take to make their DEI efforts come together.

I was asked to speak on our tactics to put the right people in the right positions, and resulting diversity. At WCCO, we turned the scenario on its head. We looked at why someone would or would not want to work here and then changed the interviewing process based on what we learned. Instead of sitting across a desk, we now tour the facility with candidates. When potential employees see other people who looked like them – for example, women or those with diverse ethnicities – they think, “I can do this. I can work here.” Women might not think manufacturing is right for them, but through the tour, they see other women working on the production floor. As a result, we’ve seen people physically relax during these interviews, and our diverse workforce continues to expand. Women now make up 50 percent of the workforce, and 43 percent of supervisors are women or people of different backgrounds. About a dozen languages are spoken throughout the organization.

We also addressed the need to expose younger generations to opportunities in the rubber industry. Mr. Glasper and Ms. Dempsey-Miller spoke about the barriers they see living in a city or more populated area.  The challenges are similar in rural areas. Rural communities often can’t fund STEM education, or people don’t have access to it because the communities are too far apart. Organizations have to invest not just funds, but time, to help introduce young people to STEM programs and, ultimately, careers. It will take collaboration between the public and private sectors to help meet this need. In North Dakota, for example, there is legislation to support appropriations for a learning academy that would include STEM classes. A collaboration between school districts, the state, and private investors are working to provide funding for STEM education. We are located in a part of the world where unemployment is low. If we don’t train the next generation, there simply won’t be enough people to fill available positions.

At the end, each panel member was asked the question: How do we recognize when we aren’t properly practicing DEI? What are the red flags? At WCCO, we have learned inclusion is about more than just creating a welcoming culture – it is also about where we allocate responsibility within our company. Are we giving responsibility to the right people? Do we have a diverse representation of employees, including those from younger generations, applying for additional responsibilities? We also pay close attention to who is taking on volunteer leadership positions. If people are feeling included and believe their voice has the power to change things, they will do things that aren’t mandatory. If you don't see a diverse representation of your workforce applying for positions with more responsibility, taking on volunteer leadership roles, and engaging in workplace culture, this could be a red flag.

At WCCO, we also have a process improvement program, similar to a pared down Kaizen program, where anyone in the company can submit an idea for consideration. The first idea we got was, “Can I have a broom?” because someone wanted to keep their area tidier. Since introducing this program in 2014, we’ve implemented 1,600 ideas from employees. There are two important keys to success for this process: an idea cannot be turned down without it going through cross-functional committees for review, and we have to speak to the submitter. This has given everyone a voice, and we have seen a direct tie to revenue. Since implementing this program, we have been able to produce 20 percent more volume with 20 percent fewer people.  This is extremely important in our case because there are more open jobs than jobseekers in North Dakota; we have to be more efficient in our productivity with a smaller workforce.  Through this program, our employees know that WCCO provides a safe place to express ideas and that their voices will be heard.

Fierce dedication to employee training has been another important key to success for us. We have a robust training program with close to 100 internal classes, which help build both skill sets and confidence. Everyone, regardless of who they are or where they came from, helped build this program to ensure all employees have opportunities to learn, grow and advance within our company.

WCCO Belting doesn’t have a specific DEI initiative, but we are proud that our workforce is diverse as a result of processes we’ve long held to prioritize people from all walks of life. Without diversity, equity and inclusion, our company would look and feel very different. When the company was started in 1969, founder Ed Shorma – whose parents were immigrants – gave anyone who was interested in a job the opportunity to work at WCCO, no matter their background or skill level. His openness and support of the community set the stage for continued diversity to this day.


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