There are those who say interest in diversity, equity and inclusion may be cooling after the intensity of 2020. Others argue that while engaging a diversity-owned staffing supplier is good, companies need to do more if they truly want diversity in the workplace. However, DE&I remains an important topic for client companies, and their interest in engaging the services of diversity-owned staffing suppliers remains high.

In preparation for the release of the 2022 Diversity-Owned Staffing Firms list, we spoke with several of the firms’ owners as well as an MSP provider to get their take on the landscape. Each firm on the list, which has grown to 206 firms this year from 163 in 2021, has its own story, unique identity and take on the market. One takeaway from our discussions as well as SIA’s own research is that large enterprise companies continue to cite interest in using diversity suppliers as part of their own DE&I initiatives.

In fact, putting in place a program for diversity suppliers ranked as the most-used supplier management strategy among large client companies.

Staffing Industry Analysts’ “Workforce Solutions Buyer Survey 2021” found 71% of client companies had in place a program for diversity suppliers. In addition, 26% planned to seriously consider putting such a program in place within the next two years.

Interest in working with diversity suppliers correlates with what MSP and RPO executive Kelsey Williams is seeing in the marketplace. “Diversity and inclusion and working with suppliers that are diversity owned has been important for several years, at least with the customers I’m working with,” notes Williams, who is senior director, financial services, at Pontoon, a total talent, MSP and RPO provider. Clients are doing more purpose-driven business and are more connected to their values than in the past, she says.

Often, diversity-owned suppliers are able to use a variety of diverse and inclusive business practices and can help meet DE&I goals in environmental, social and governance (ES&G) programs. This is a big draw for companies looking to partner with the right group of diverse suppliers. “What [companies] are really trying to do is invest and strengthen the communities where they are doing business,” Williams says.

One example of a company ramping up diversity spend is Google. In a March 2022 blog post, Chief Procurement Officer Jennifer Moceri announced the search giant plans to spend $2.5 billion with diverse suppliers from all industries this year — up from $1.5 billion spent on diverse suppliers last year.

In addition, spending on diversity suppliers of all types rose an average of 54% between 2017 and 2020, according to an analysis by Bain and Co. of data from spend management software provider Coupa. It also found that companies in the top quartile of spending on diverse suppliers see an average of 0.7 percentage point more in savings off total procurement expenditures because of increased efficiency and a greater supplier retention rate.

Fostering Inclusion

Wen Stenger, CEO and co-founder of staffing firm Omni Inclusive, says they continue to see interest in the use of diversity-owned staffing firms, but the conversation has gone beyond just diversity ownership. Client companies also want to attract diverse workers. After the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd in 2020, there was an awakening, Stenger says — people realized they had biases. The killings and resulting Black Lives Matter protests also prompted conversation, though it seems actions have slowed as people work to figure out what this means going forward.

Stenger’s firm is based in the Minneapolis area and covers all areas of diversity with a special focus on serving the LGBTQ+ community as well as the veteran community. In addition to staffing, Omni Inclusive’s services include diversity, equity and inclusion consulting and education.

“We work with clients to understand their gaps in terms of diversity and build specialized strategies to foster inclusion,” Stenger says.

“Diversity is a noun and simply means that we are different, but the action verb is ‘inclusion,’” they note. “Recruiting is only 20% of the job — the other 80% is retention, and companies do not spend enough time making plans for inclusive retention.”

They continue, “We need to create an inclusion program where we have a sense of belonging and equity. The company culture has to change if you’re going to retain diverse talent.”

Separately, a report by Bain and Co. released earlier this year found that more than 70% of workers do not feel fully included at work.

“While many organizations have made public commitments to advance diversity and inclusion, generating real progress is deceptively difficult,” Julie Coffman, Bain’s chief diversity officer, said at the time.

“Fostering a truly inclusive workplace means, in one part, caring about how people feel, and it also requires a heavy investment into the design and ways of working needed to create a place of belonging, trust and support,” she added. “Inclusivity, done well, will require employees and leaders to adopt new mindsets, change long-held behaviors, adapt to new technologies, and operate new and different systems.”

HCM Staffing and Consulting Group, a New York-based firm, focuses on consulting and training as well as staffing. Particularly when it comes to diversity, the company partners with clients to understand their business and help them to increase diversity.

“It’s a total workspace holistic model,” says Eddie Bright Jr., HCM’s president and global CEO.

Bright says he even debated calling the company “HCM Group” to highlight its strategy when he took over as CEO at the three-year-old company in May 2019. He had formerly served as CEO of ApTask and spent 14 years as executive VP of IT services at Solomon Page Group.

HCM also works with recognized diversity trainer Torin Ellis, its diversity strategist, who partners with organizations to evaluate their DE&I strategies and find out what a company’s value points are. Ellis then works to help the organizations to build a culture that welcomes, supports and provides a runway — in terms of time and money — for individuals to perform at their best. The aim is to bolster a company’s overall operations.

“If you do DE&I right, you do the entire organization right,” Ellis says.

Competing in the Marketplace

While a staffing firm may be diversity owned, it must be a great staffing firm to compete with firms of all types.

Sometimes clients would question whether a diversity-owned firm could produce results, says Brent Cavender, CEO of Four Winds Staffing, a diversity-owned staffing firm. Fortunately, Cavender says that line of questioning appears on the decline.

Four Winds Staffing, founded two years ago, provides locum tenens and advanced practice healthcare staffing and works directly with tribes and with Indian Health Services. Cavender himself is a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, the third-largest federally recognized tribe. The focus is getting the right professionals in place to meet clients’ needs.

“I would say the biggest challenge in working with Native American hospitals is, can you truly deliver a physician that understands the culture? That’s the biggest challenge — making sure it’s a great fit for the hospital, the community and the patients,” Cavender says.

Physicians must have a lot of interest in the population and be culturally sensitive, he notes.

For any staffing firm, it’s about meeting client expectations and delivering results.

Case in point, Robert Murphy, co-founder of legal staffing firm Assigned Counsel, has been in the staffing business for 30 years. During the first 15, he wasn’t a majority owner, but over time he took on a majority stake, and the firm became diversity-owned.

“It hasn’t changed our business model, how we approach our clients, how we conduct our business,” Murphy says. “It’s still earning the respect of our clients based on the performance we provide and service.”

Diverse Candidates

The goal is to provide the best candidates for the circumstance, and if they are diverse candidates, then so be it, he says.

In this regard, firms may receive requests from clients to provide candidates who are themselves diverse. This is an area that can run afoul of the law, and it’s not something staffing firms should outright agree to.

“Diversity cannot be guaranteed but can be occurring in the form of where we source candidates,” Murphy says. His firm aims for an inclusive process instead of an exclusive process, and he knows many of the candidates his firm provides are diverse. He also says diversity is something that happens but can’t be constructed.

As for the candidates themselves, they are concerned about the quality of life when taking a position, not just getting a job. And Murphy believes that will continue to be a dominant theme going forward.

“They want to work for companies that value their employees,” he says.

Healthcare Perspective

Travel nurse staffing has been one of the fastest-growing segments in the staffing industry.

Beyond Medical Staffing, based in Sterling, Virginia, was founded in March 2020 just at the start of the pandemic. Founder and Talent Acquisition Specialist Viviane Yimga Ngassam says she is seeing greater interest in diversity suppliers, and such suppliers can bring new ideas, products and services. And diversity is key in healthcare, as patients come from all walks of life. Nurses have to be considerate of a patient’s culture and background so they don’t unintentionally misunderstand or misread the patient. Yimga Ngassam has first-hand experience with this, as she is a registered nurse herself.

When it comes to the importance of diversity staffing suppliers, she also feels the more people talk about it, the more openness there will be to using diversity-owned firms. Still, as with others, she says firms have to focus on delivering high-quality service.

“Being a diversity-owned firm is not a marketing strategy or something like that,” she says. “You still have to have the quality.”

The Diversity Paradigm

Diversity can refer to all types of people, including neurodivergent and autistic workers as well as those with visible or invisible disabilities. Neurodivergent can refer to people with ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and autism, among other things.

“I know pretty much all of us are connected to someone with autism,” says Nish Parikh, founder and CEO of Rangam Consultants, a staffing firm based in Somerset, New Jersey.

Parikh’s firm provides staffing in clinical/scientific, IT, engineering, healthcare and other areas. He says it also has a focus on intersectionality and empathy, providing a framework that highlights the strengths and abilities of neurodivergent, autistic and disabled workers.

“In the last two years, we have seen increased interest in neurodivergent talent,” Parikh says. “It is no longer a question of if they should hire this talent segment. Companies are now seeking to understand how they can ensure that each neurodivergent candidate has an experience that supports their needs, regardless of whether or not they are hired. This is the paradigm change needed for true inclusivity.”

Parikh says his goal is to have companies build neurodivergent talent into their hiring processes.

“They will screen in talent, and hiring neurodivergent, autistic and disabled employees will become ‘business as usual’ — just what the company does every day.”

Looking Ahead

Diversity is a work in progress, and it is something the workforce ecosystem needs to continue to focus on. It’s not just about engaging the right firm and hiring the right people. Engaging diversity suppliers is one piece of the puzzle, but there has to be follow-up to ensure that these suppliers are bringing in diverse talent. More importantly, is the talent staying? This is where inclusion and belonging come in.

Workers want a more equitable workplace, one where all can belong regardless of race or ethnicity. Diversity suppliers need to do their bit to bring in the right talent and make certain they feel included. Company leaders need to help ensure they create the right environment for workers to flourish.

As the war for talent heats up, some are concerned interest in diversity may have waned after its surge in 2020. It seems counterintuitive, but sentiment aside, it is up to the workforce solutions ecosystem to change the narrative while keeping the spotlight on diversity, equity and inclusion.