Integrating a New Workforce: A Minicase Study
Aug 20, 2019
By: Edmund J. McGarrell, Jr. AEP
We can learn much from the past. With that in mind, let me tell you a story from my own past, as an HR officer at Corning.
In 1961, Corning Incorporated decided to open a new plant in Danville, Virginia. This was a time of racial turbulence throughout the country, especially in the South: freedom rides, Jim Crow laws, police dogs, fire hoses—so much acrimony and hard feelings. In the midst of this civil turmoil, I was privileged to be assigned as first personnel manager for this startup operation. Racial challenges notwithstanding, we were able to launch the Danville plant with an integrated workforce from day one. The collaborative methodology we used is one that can be used today in similar situations.
In 1961 President Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925, requiring all government suppliers to implement an Equal Opportunity Employment policy. Our product line in the Danville operation included technical glassware sold to the federal government.
Unfortunately, in announcing its plans to build a new plant in Danville, Corning had told the community leaders and other firms that its intention was to follow community practices in staffing and operating our new plant. This meant that we would be hiring blacks for the types of jobs typically and traditionally offered minorities in this area; that is to say, for entry-level jobs such as in housekeeping, custodial, and general labor.
I had recently been through a plant startup in Greenville, Ohio, but what a difference this assignment would be! The big difference was the racial composition of the workforce in the two communities. In Danville, minorities represented about 20% of the area population, whereas in Greenville there were few minorities in the recruiting area.
I approached my new boss, William (Bill) F. Kiefer, a seasoned manager who had recently returned from an assignment running a Corning operation in Australia. I told him that I wanted to change the hiring practices that had been announced. It was not difficult to point out to Bill not only that we had a moral duty to make this change but that there was also a sound business reason for doing so, since our government contracts depended on compliance.
Needless to say, the early announcement made it particularly difficult for us to have to go back to the community and change direction.
The methodology used to ensure a diverse workforce in Danville and compliance with the new Executive Order was strongly influenced by an experience shared with me by my former supervisor at Corning. This was Francis (Frank) O’Rourke, a marvelous career mentor for me.
Frank had joined Corning after many years organizing labor unions in the electrical industry in the Midwest. He had been an international rep for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) union and had organized the union at an RCA plant in Indianapolis. This was in the early years of World War II. RCA management asked Frank to help work out a strategy to integrate the workforce, as required by President Roosevelt’s 1941 Executive Order (8802) that prohibited segregationist hiring policies by federal contractors.
Here’s how Frank and the RCA plant management approached this challenge. They determined that they were going to hire its first black employees into Quality Control positions. They approached a minority technical school, the Crispus Attucks Academy, for referrals of top students for consideration as applicants. The school was very helpful in recommending candidates. RCA’s success was primarily due to their selecting individuals that they knew were going to be qualified to do the work. This method worked out well. They had no problems and the federal government was very satisfied with the results.
Implementation of the Recruiting Plan
My Danville manager, Bill Kiefer, became a hero to me. He quickly went to Corning, New York, to meet with division leadership, to explain that we were going to do things differently, and to obtain their blessing. When he returned, he asked me to make contact with four community leaders to solicit their help and support. These were city manager Ed Temple, police chief “Red” McCain, and Stuart Wheatley, a prominent attorney who would also be representing Corning in its legal affairs. The fourth individual was “Mac” Cross, the chief personnel officer at the huge Dan River Mills manufacturing facility, the region’s highest employer. All four individuals were extremely helpful, each of them indicating that they felt we were going in the right direction. They recommended that we proceed with their full support.
We also asked this group to recommend some well-respected leaders of the black community who could refer qualified minority applicants. They recommended two: Thomas Shaver, a local school principal, and banker/lawyer Jerry Williams. I made contact with each of these men to ask for their help. I assured them that any of their referrals would get full consideration for employment, as long as they met our qualifications.
Our next step was to enlist the help of the local state employment service office. This was managed by a good man, Lonnie Bennett, and his assistant Dick Pritty. I explained to them that we wanted to use their office as the primary source for applicants to work in our new factory. I also stressed that we would give them credit for all of our new hires. This was important because at that time their budget from the local state employment service was based on number of placements made.
The final and critical phase of the process was to ask the employment service office to integrate their testing process. Up to this point, they had segregated testing procedures.
They promptly enlisted the help of testing experts from their state office in Richmond. Armed with our job descriptions, these testers met with our management and became familiar with our operations. They analyzed our jobs and set up test batteries to screen applicants, using the General Aptitude Test Battery (GATB), a nationally recognized, sound screening device, developed by the U.S. Employment Service. They scouted the whole nation to find test batteries that had been validated for similar occupations in other industries. Consequently, they were able to establish unbiased, single standard norms for the top jobs in each of our departments. We then established what we called “job ladders” where anyone hired in a particular department would have met the aptitude test norms for the top job in that job ladder.
The process worked very, very well. We received test-selected applicants from the Virginia employment office, interviewed them at our plant, and then interviewed them a second time with our department heads. After checking references, we extended job offers. Referral of candidates by the local minority leaders sufficed as a reference check for those individuals. The results were quite amazing.
Important to the success of our program was the work of production superintendent John Freeman, and his department heads who made sure that line supervisors conscientiously implemented our policy.
In integrating the workforce at the Danville plant we made a decision not to tackle the issue of socialization—things like plant parties, recreation programs, and so forth. We decided that we would simply let that part develop by itself—and it sure did.
The first Christmas after the opening of the plant, Ron Marshall, one of our experienced shift supervisors, came in and said that the people in the plant wanted to have a Christmas dinner dance at the main hotel in town. I told him as far as we were concerned, “No problem; go ahead.” So they did. They organized it themselves. It was plantwide and a great success—no problems whatsoever.
Steps in the Process
Summarizing the things that we did boil down to several distinct steps, all of which demonstrated collaboration with the local, corporate, and government communities.
- Defining our policy and determining our general approach toward implementing the policy
- Obtaining corporate approval
- Ensuring that line managers and supervisors bought in
- Outreach to the community
- Outreach to the community at large
- Outreach to the black community
- Establishing the hiring process and defining a single hiring standard
- Implementing the process
- Finally, evaluating results
I was assigned to the Danville plant for almost five years. In that whole period, I believe no more than a handful of employees did not work out on the job, and all of the minority employees consistently met job requirements. In fact, many of our minority hires became career employees at Corning, so we were very, very pleased.
To the best of our knowledge, our efforts were accepted by the federal government and we did receive some accolades in writing, including from the Virginia Council on Human Relations. At its annual meeting it gave us credit for breaking the local hiring patterns and ensuring equal employment opportunity for the very first hires in our plant.
About the Author(s)
Edmund J. McGarrell, Jr. AEP, retired from Corning as Manager, Quality Systems Education, in 1992, having served Corning for over 41 years in personnel/HR positions, including four plant start-up operations. He graduated from LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York, with a B.S. in Industrial Relations.