Push for workplace diversity as VW plant brings international flavor

Mario Duarte of Volkswagen said that when he joined the automaker's Chattanooga operation, he expected to see a lot of Germans.

But what he found were many people from other VW plants -- it has more than 60 worldwide -- who came to the United States to start up the factory, including from Spain, Mexico, Portugal, Slovakia and Brazil.

"There were people from all over the world who came here to build the plant," he told a Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce group.

Duarte, assistant manager of staffing and workforce planning for VW in Chattanooga, said the German carmaker has a corporate commitment to diversity.

In Chattanooga, he said, the company has tried to mirror the local area in terms of diversity.

"When Volkswagen decided to come to Chattanooga, we started to look for leaders throughout the community to try to understand how it had evolved and what was important," Duarte said.

According to VW, 21 percent of its production employees were minorities as of last year. Duarte said 95 percent of its production workers were hired from Hamilton County, where 20.2 percent of the population was black, 4.5 percent was Hispanic and 3.9 percent was Native American or some other minority in the 2010 census.

In terms of suppliers to the car company's plant, VW said it had a target of recruiting 5 percent minority-owned providers for the start of production. VW said it hit 7 percent.

Jennifer Hislop, recruiting and diversity specialist for VW, said the company wants to compare its employment statistics with Hamilton County and Tennessee data.

But she added that it's not just about having diversity in a company's workforce.

"It's making sure they feel inclusive in the workforce as well," she said.

Ron Harris, director of workplace diversity for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, said businesses either are intentionally inclusive or unintentionally exclusive.

Harris said he doesn't spend a lot of time talking about diversity because it exists whether people admit it or not.

"If there are two people in the room, you have diversity," he said. "I spend most of my time now talking about the value of inclusion. Leaders are going to have to have a message of inclusion."

Gladys Pineda-Loher, business diversity coordinator at the Chamber, said diversity at a company starts at the top.

"If it doesn't start at the top, it won't succeed," she said.

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