A Hard Climb In A Downturn

The gleaming corporate offices of Hughes Aircraft Co. are just a few miles down the freeway from the gritty slums of south-central Los Angeles. David Barclay knows both worlds well. In the 1960s, he worked as a parole officer in Watts. Now, as a black vice-president in a company that once epitomized white male clubbiness, he is trying to pull those two worlds a bit closer.

Barclay, who joined Hughes in 1971, was named last year as vice-president for workplace diversity. His assignment: to come up with a program that would get minorities the top jobs that had so far eluded them. That would be a tough mission even in good times. But the defense industry is retrenching, and Hughes has eliminated 14,000 jobs in the past two years, with more cuts to come. Says Barclay: "We're doing all we can just to hold the line."

Today, minority employees make up one-third of Hughes's work force. That compares with only 13% 20 years ago. About 10% of the company's 51,000 workers are black. When it comes to the choice executive jobs, however, they still are rarely filled by minority employees.

BACKSLIDE. Part of the problem is a scarcity of minority professionals: Only 4% of Hughes's entry-level engineers are black, reflecting the relatively small pool of black engineers nationwide. But there is no such shortage of Asians. They make up 24% of Hughes's 5,000 junior engineers--yet only one has risen as high as division head.

Barclay concedes that despite recent efforts, the Hughes corporate culture hasn't completely licked racism. "Not everyone is fully supportive of what we're trying to do," he says. And, while restructurings involving attrition and early retirements can often enhance minority opportunities, forced layoffs affecting less senior workers usually hurt. Hughes has not yet replaced most of the high-level women and minority executives who left. Just two years ago, the company had 12 women and minority vice-presidents, says Barclay. Today, there are 8 out of 92: two women, two Asians, two blacks, two Hispanics.

Hughes's cutbacks have forced Barclay to take the long view. He persuaded the defense contractor to provide about $1.5 million worth of financial aid and lab equipment to seven black colleges in 1990. He has also launched an internship program that brings both students and faculty to Hughes to work with company scientists. And Barclay got Hughes to invest $250,000 to help start a new mathematics and engineering public high school on the California State University campus at Domingus Hills, where most of the students are black.

These financial commitments are not huge. Still, "this is not a PR effort or window dressing," insists Barclay. "We are making a difference." The question is how much of a difference Barclay can make at Hughes while its business is shrinking.

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