A call to action: how we can, and should, support increased diversity in our profession

By Robert Agbede | February 5, 2020

February is Black History Month, a time to recognize the contributions and legacies of people of African and Caribbean descent. At Hatch, we believe that a diverse and fully inclusive work environment fosters a plurality of thought and perspectives that solve challenging problems and creates value for our clients, our communities, and the world at large. But, we recognize that we still have a long way to go with diversity in the engineering profession. In the United States, Black engineers make up just 4.3% of professional engineers.[i] We have an obligation, as senior members of this profession, to do what we can to encourage people of all kinds into this valuable and fulfilling occupation, and ensure that we’re doing what we can to both remove roadblocks and provide opportunity for advancement.

To understand why I’m so passionate about the role of mentor-protégé programs, and why I devote much of my time to encouraging others to do the same, we need to start at the beginning. It all started in 1987, I was a young engineer working for a medium-sized engineering firm in Pittsburgh. One day I got a call from US Steel (USS) reporting that they were having an issue with the respirable coal dust at one of their mines in Oak Grove, Alabama. Up for the challenge, a few days later, I flew from Pittsburgh to Alabama.

Once on the ground, I learned that USS had several mines that were each facing the same issue. If the issue at Oak Grove mine couldn’t be fixed expeditiously, they would have no choice but to shut it down until it was brought into compliance—putting hundreds of people out of work. We were able to identify the issue and fabricate a solution quickly. It was a relief for everyone involved.

But what I remember most about this project, and what had the most impact in my professional life, was what happened when I was leaving the mine. I was ushered over by a woman—it was a black woman. She said, “Come here, son,” as she grabbed onto my arm. She went on, “You’re black.” “Yes…I’m black” I replied. Through tears, she said to me, “I never thought I’d see the day in Oak Grove, Alabama, that a black man would save our jobs.” Since then, the woman’s words have lingered in my mind.

A few months later I started my own company, Advanced Technology Systems Inc. (ATS) working mostly for USS. As the company grew and began bidding on larger, more competitive contracts, we found that we were often coming so close to obtaining these contracts, but we somehow fell short. While I was fully confident in ATS’ performance and technical skills, we needed to improve in other areas of business including finance, HR and marketing. Determined to do better the next time, I picked up the phone and called Tony Lisanti, President and CEO of Chester Engineers, one of our competitors at the time. It was then that I asked him to be my mentor. At first, Tony was confused. It wasn’t common to receive calls from competing firms, let alone have them ask for business advice, but he said yes. Tony mentored me in all aspects of business and really helped me to develop ATS.

Over the course of my career, I have been fortunate to have several mentors to which I owe a lot of my success. And so now, at Hatch, I can do the same. For the past twenty years, we have been an active participant in the City of Pittsburgh's mentor-protégé program, we have since expanded our involvement to other cities including Houston, working to assist certified, minority and/or women-owned engineering firms (protégés) to grow and develop their businesses and allocate a minimum of 35 percent of scope of work to these firms depending on their "readiness" and ultimate capability to deliver.

The work we do to support and mentor these firms goes beyond economic interest. It is not for us, but for the communities where we work and live. Creating value for society means having the right people at the table, and we have a responsibility as leaders in the industry to set the standard and provide access and guidance to all people regardless of gender, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, and disability.

I would like this to serve as a call to action for my fellow experienced professionals. I encourage each of you to consider what you are doing to advance our profession, to pass along your knowledge and expertise to the next generation, and I challenge you to do so with someone that may not be like you. Someone that may look different, be a different gender, have a different belief system, or a different cultural background. I encourage you even more so to consider doing it for someone who may not have the same privileges as you.

At Hatch, we say that we’re passionately committed to the pursuit of a better world through positive change. Imagine the progress we could make if all people were given the opportunity to develop better ideas and apply them to the world’s toughest challenge. What a world that would be.

[i] https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2017/nsf17310/digest/occupation/blacks.cfm