Last week, on April 3rd and 4th, the Northeast Recycling Council held their annual Spring conference in virtual format. Welcoming attendees from across the industry, Megan Fontes, the association’s Executive Director opened the event by thanking the conference sponsors, speakers, attendees, companies, members and benefactors for their generous support and expressed that they had a wonderful lineup of topics and speakers to look forward to throughout the next two days.

First up was Keynote Speaker, Cheryl Coleman, Senior Vice President of ISRI, who spoke on building a diverse workforce for sustainable materials management and also what ISRI was doing in this area. She said that the recycling industry is an essential infrastructure that we all depend on. ISRI has been trying to talk more about how materials are used in everyday products in order to show how widespread the industry is. AI, optical sorting, evolving packaging are just a part of things that are going on. Since safety is a core value, the environmental program was developed and the members are doing great work in the social and government areas. She defined what diversity could mean. Do you see it from a neural perspective, physical challenges, reentering the workforce, race, old versus young? What are some benefits of having a diverse workplace? Goal of recycling is to get materials into the market so they can be used in new material. A diverse workplace better understands diverse markets, stimulating innovation, and giving companies freedom to go after a wider pool of employees, regardless of differences. It allows people to learn about different cultures and different lifestyles, giving an enhanced employee experience. You should be hiring the best people from a diverse talent pool, creating a safe space for open discussions, allowing for mistakes, supporting diverse colleagues all year round, and investing in a long-term inclusion journey with tangible results. With everything going on the world, take a building block approach, don’t try to do everything at once. Make this a learning experience. Some of the tools that ISRI provides includes a language lexicon playbook, which is s guide and reference tool for anyone communicating with an external audience and ensures we are all speaking the common language as an industry. This resource has been translated into five languages and helps us evolve and improve the industry’s image and effectiveness in educating, informing, and influencing our target audiences. It is available for download online with a training video coming soon. ISRI also offers compensation and benefits surveys, as well as best practices in recruiting and retention and a workforce management toolkit. There is also an ISRI Pathways Program. This involves paid opportunities at ISRI member companies, experiential learning in a field of interest, apprenticeships for students or refugees interested in skill-based careers, internships for current students and recent graduates, fellowships for students within two years of graduation. There is also a job series film that helps people learn about a career in the recycling industry. She said that ISRI wants people to know that recycling industry is an exciting place to be, using a variety of social media and other outlets. There is diversity in recycled materials. Look at the diversity in your organization as a gift. Talk about the successful programs in your organization. She stressed that we have to look at more well-rounded perspectives that work well and learn from each other. Start small from within the organization and let that build. Know where your company is going. Diversify your operation, build your employees’ skillsets and give them opportunities to interact with each other.

“Cultivating Inclusive Recruitment and Hiring Practices” moderated by Anne Bijur, Materials Management Supervisor for the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, emphasized strategies for inclusivity in recruitment and hiring practices. José Luis Ramos, Bilingual Sustainable Business Program Coordinator for City of Longmont, CO, spoke first about using equity as a guiding principle. It is a framework. First start, with the hiring process (bilingual applications, bilingual requirements, support systems, cultural media), build support and networking, then mentor and promote. For example, if you are going to hiring a candidate and you want to focus on the Latino population, consider if you really need the college degree, or if bilingual is required or recommended? Set up the application in English and Spanish. Create bilingual materials for all, pay attention to promotion channels, think about people that can get access to certain channels, and think more broadly about how to reach out to these certain candidates. Attract good candidates by offering them something a little extra. Think about making the description more broad—looking at both experience and background. Who do you want to reach? Take the risks. Steps include intentional cultural marketing, support system, equitable pay. He stressed if you have a high diverse area, make sure that you have the correct wording on your advertisements and to be conscious of the population. When you are translating your documents and applications, do not use google translate, hire a professional translator depending on your requirements.

John C. Carroll, Director of Strategy at The Parker Wright Group, Inc. introduced and demonstrated the XLeap Platform, which is a tool to bring organizations together in a safe environment to discuss concerns employees may have, helping to open up an anonymous discission and making people more comfortable. Cornell Wright, Managing Consultant for The Parker Wright Group, talked about using the platform within DEI activities at work. He sees that hiring diversity concerns, include 1) Unconscious bias, an example of combatting this is The Voice with their blind auditions, 2) I need specific talent – where would you go to recruit your team?, and 3) Where do I find the talent? Use educational roadmaps for your teams, such as community colleges, local and state employment programs, predictive index’s model for optimal team hiring.

The final discussion of the first day focused on “Clearing Career Pathways for Underrepresented Individuals” discussing examples of programs that support diversity and inclusion of underrepresented individuals in the materials management industry. Moderated by Jessica Levine, Diversity and Inclusion Manager at the The Recycling Partnership and Chair of NERC’s DE&I Committee, introduced the first speaker, Fields Jackson, CEO of Racing Toward Diversity Magazine and President of College Diversity Network. He talked about some of the campaigns they have done. What are some gender equality and diversity best practices? Work with big brands. Build customized job boards with a goal for people to see it, but also network on other boards so it can go viral. He said they held virtual career fairs based on semesters during the pandemic, which really took off.  Companies wanted to hire but no one could go anywhere, so the virtual career fairs were very popular. Many of the people that signed up were alumni; job boards were hitting campuses so the jobs would elevate to the presidents and deans and they were passing on jobs to people not in the target market. They ended up creating another job board for college alumni. Started working with Keep America Beautiful and the response has been incredible. He stressed to get front of networks where you can get diverse talent. By diversifying your talent pool, you are going to find some great employees out there that you would not have known otherwise. Let people know these opportunities exist.

Michelle Wiseman, Director of Waste Diversion and Outreach in the City of Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Resilience, shared some of the some of the things they have been doing. She said that the new green economy focuses on inclusion and the history of material. When you look at a big city, all you see is materials. There are places that have been extracted from to create the buildings such as granite, bricks, etc. We should be working to preserve history, using as much of the material as possible. The goal should be empowerment; look at people as clients rather than citizens. What are people’s gifts? Look at pathways to our future and look at people’s talents and skills. As cities become more diverse, they need to include everyone in the conversation. The median working age now is lower to mid-40s, so we need more skilled people in our workforce. If you are in a position where you can hire, keep your mind open for younger people, women, other races, inviting everyone to the table, and getting more engagement on every level from the top to the bottom. They will tell you what the issues are, and from there, you can address them.

On the second day of the conference, Josh Kelly from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and VP of NERC, gave the opening remarks and expressed that this is topic of diversity is unique but needed. He not only thanked all of the sponsors, but also recognized the staff who worked so hard to put this together, especially Robert Croft, Megan Fontes, and Mary Ann Remolador. The first topic of the day was on “Creating Retention Strategies for an Inclusive Workplace” with Cherish Changala, Vice President of Sustainability and Public Affairs, at Revolution, introducing the session and speakers. Whitney Cox, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Program Manager at Schnitzer Steel, stressed that the first 90 days that an employee is brought on is crucial. That first impression is important in determining how long they are going to stay. You need a strong onboarding process and inclusion in order to keep them. During the hiring process you should have Employee Resource Groups information for them to sign up with and company culture training. Also conduct a 30-day interview and 90-day review. A 30-day review helps with statistics and retention because it includes employee, direct supervisor and upper management. It should focus on how the company has treated the employee so far and how the processes and training are going for them. Ask questions and engage—are they getting the tools they need to be successful? She also emphasized that we need to invest in educational programs to build a great workforce candidate. Organizations can partner with fellowship programs and create company academies with local high schools, colleges and technical institutes. Other tools you can use are a suggestion box (with feedback to employees on regular basis), office hours (could be by business units, regions, groups, etc.), and company-wide culture training, focusing on different themes. It also sets the stage for new hires as well. Employee Resource Groups give great insight and create a more diverse workplace. Ensure that they have consistent messaging and engagement. Increase frontline engagement through educational material made available. Finding different ways to reach your staff successfully is key, translation services for employees who speak another language, have a mentor program in place for those who wish to be guided and tweak it as needed. The key to retention is diversity.

Mara Iverson, Founder, Owner, Principal of Mara Iverson Equity Education & Consulting, spoke on daily retention techniques you can use. Identify opportunities where you make choices – you can either go down autopilot or you can pause, ask questions, and seek alternatives. This will lead to better outcomes and equitable practices. Build relationships and perform goal setting, delegation, hiring, and check-ins Consider a the following approach: 1) know your desired outcome (what is your current approach and what do you want to see instead?), 2) identify decision-making opportunities that might have equity and inclusion impacts (what decisions do I make regularly, what is my default path or autopilot choice), 3) examine choices and unintended consequences (who benefits from the default path, who may be burdened or disadvantaged?), 4) brainstorm alternatives to the default approach (what other options could lead to more equitable results), 5) act and evaluate (did my choice lead to the desired results, what was the impact on equity and inclusion?). People may be missing opportunities to grow, so you need to engage with all members of the team. This can lead to growth from staff across identities and position. Look at how can you make your feedback more equitable.

At the end of the day, attendees broke into small group discussions and discussed their experiences in hiring and retaining diverse staff. The groups shared experiences and asked questions about their best practices, DEI initiatives, what they were going to take back to their respective organizations. At the end of the time, everyone came back together and talked about what each group focused on and how they helped each other.

Closing out an excellent Spring conference, Mary Ann Remolador, Assistant Director of NERC thanked everyone once again and said that NERC’s Fall Conference would be in-person at the end of the year in Rhode Island. We look forward to it!

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