US businesses map out their own route to hiring more minorities. Corporate approach tries to blend hiring goals and training programs

American business and industry officials have staked out their own position on the hot topic of how best to boost minority employment. It's a position roughly midway between that of civil rights groups and the Reagan administration. Business officials maintain that a combination of active recruitment and training and a system of flexible goals and timetables are what is necessary for an effective minority hiring program.

The Reagan administration favors voluntary ``affirmative outreach'' programs designed to recruit and train minorities into a pool of qualified applicants, from which companies would hire without regard to race or gender.

Administration officials maintain that gender or race-conscious goals and timetables inevitably degenerate under the pressure of rigid hiring deadlines into a system of strict quotas that encourage discrimination against white males.

On the other hand, some civil rights leaders argue that without rigid goals, American employers will have little incentive to hire minorities, and the government will not be able to properly monitor whether employers are complying with antidiscrimination laws.

Nevertheless, administration officials are working to promote what they term their ``colorblind'' alternative to affirmative action. But business leaders indicate they are not radically altering their minority hiring programs to conform with the White House's view of civil rights.

The business community's position generally recognizes the merits of both arguments -- that of Reagan and of civil rights leaders. In the view of many in the private sector, it is an approach to minority hiring that seems to work. In effect, it combines the affirmative outreach approach with established targets or goals for hiring.

``It's unrealistic to think that industry is going to hire unqualified people. So the real thrust in eliminating minority and female imbalance in the work force is in getting those people trained and skilled, so they will be qualified,'' says one industry observer who follows affirmative action issues.

But it takes more than just outreach, according to William S. McEwen, director of equal employment opportunities at Monsanto Company and chairman of the human-resources steering group at the National Association of Manufacturers. It takes a level of commitment by employers to set and achieve hiring targets, he explains.

``Goals and timetables are what we in industry have always used,'' Mr. McEwen says. And he stresses that the targets must be flexible, so employers are not forced to strictly fulfill hiring targets.

There is nothing inherently discriminatory about setting goals or timetables to boost minority employment, McEwen says. But the key, he stresses, is that each employer make a good faith effort to reach those goals.

``The minute the good faith effort part gets out of it, and the minute there are rigid standards for failing to implement a plan, that is when a goal begins to become a quota,'' McEwen says. ``Rigidity is the difference.''

Al Hinkle of the American Bankers Association agrees that goals are essential.

``If you don't set goals for people, then they tend not to reach those goals,'' he says. ``When you report something to the federal government as a goal or timetable and management signs it, then you certainly pay attention to that.''

Mr. Hinkle notes that much progress has been made in the past 10 years in opening up the banking industry to women and minorities.

In 1983, for the first time, women outnumbered men in the professional ranks of the nation's top 150 banks, 51.7 percent to 48.3 percent. The gains have come in large part as a result of goal-based minority hiring and recruitment plans, which, according to Hinkle, have been adopted by virtually all of the country's largest banks.

Similar progress was recorded in a recent study of goal-based minority-hiring programs by the Potomac Institute. The study showed that between 1970 and 1980, blacks' share of the job market rose, from 10.1 to 11.6 percent. Perhaps more important, the increase was concentrated in higher-paying jobs.

During the same period, women's share of the job market rose from 34.4 percent to 41 percent, also with the largest increases coming in the higher-paying white-collar job categories.

``What we are looking for is work-force diversity up and down the line, not just in the lesser jobs, but in the decisionmaking jobs on down,'' McEwen says.

He notes that the US was built in large measure by ethnic minorities who worked together.

``Ethnic diversity and a blending of the contributions of these groups made our country great,'' McEwen says. ``I have to believe that the same kind of diversity can make our companies great too.''

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