One of the results of the Civil Rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s was an effort to level the playing field in the work place. Today, government contracts often have so-called "diversity goals", intended to help give minority-owned businesses a chance to better compete for projects. But, ideastream's David C. Barnett reports that some Northeast Ohio minority firms that specialize in legal, accounting or other professional services claim they're still shut out of the game.
For the past thirty years or so, minority programs have been a boon to small companies that sell stuff or build stuff. A new county office might have its copier toner supplied by a Hispanic-owned firm, for instance, or an African American company might get to do some electrical work for a federal building project. But, Cleveland attorney Ronald Johnson says a minority-owned law firm has a harder time landing contracts.
RONALD JOHNSON: Professional services are a little bit more intellectual in nature. For example, you pay lawyers to provide legal services that are rooted in experience and judgment, as opposed to purchasing supplies or providing construction services which is a little more defined.
In other words, it's easy enough to look through catalogs or go to showrooms and weigh the differences between brands of bolts or boxes. Hiring the services of marketing firms, accountants or lawyers is a lot different.
RONALD JOHNSON: How do you effectively evaluate and differentiate Lawyer A from Lawyer B? Is it going to be their experience? Is it going to be their law school grades?
Without any hard and fast criteria to rank professional service providers, the choice often comes down to advice from friends, according to University of Akron Management professor, Steven Ash. He says those relationships are built between executives who are part of similar social circuits --- they're members of the same clubs, they play golf together, and so forth. Ash notes that a manager will claim that he or she just wants to get the best person for the job.
STEVEN ASH: But, in reality, how's that happen? Well, you go with someone who was recommended to you. You want to feel comfortable that they'll do a good job for you.
Some owners of minority firms claim that they are shut out of the bidding process, because they never have the chance to build such relationships.
Cleveland-based marketing professional Julius Dorsey says that, over the course of his twenty-five years in the business, little has changed.
JULIUS DORSEY: This is a conversation I could have had with you five years ago, ten years ago, or 25 years ago.
But, Adrian Moldanado says that the bidding process isn't so closed. The former director of Procurement and Diversity for Cuyahoga County suggests that minority firms often aren't big enough to handle the work required by a government contract.
ADRIAN MOLDANADO: Listen, there's no provision that stops any minority business from bidding as a prime contractor themselves, but what happens is that they usually won't have the financial capacity to do it. It comes down to capacity --- the ability to do the job.
Attorney Ronald Johnson has heard the capacity argument before and he thinks it's sometimes used as an excuse by companies that have already made up their minds to go with people they know. He says it's a barrier that's hard to break through.
RONALD JOHNSON: The real frustration is how do we move to the next level?
A local Latino lawyer says it's an exasperating problem, but he wouldn't comment for this story, because he didn't want to come off sounding, as he put it, like a "whiney minority".
Ronald Johnson is encouraged that the Greater Cleveland legal community has begun talking about ways to increase diversity, but like marketer Julius Dorsey he wishes such talk would produce actual results.
RONALD JOHNSON: I think it's optimistic, but it's just a little bit slow. I wish we could move a little bit faster.