Why diverse sourcing in aerospace manufacturing is harder than it seems

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Keith Lambert has been running his oxidation and mechanical services company, Oxidizers, for a decade. His 35 technicians service up to 700 aerospace and other manufacturing sites each year, ensuring that their pollution abatement equipment works.

However, it wasn’t until five years ago that it occurred to Lambert, who has worked in the environmental industry since 1990, to register as an accredited minority business enterprise.

Throughout his career, Lambert has often thought, “I just happened to be an African American. I’m the Black guy that works here with this particular company, or that group.”

Oxidizers became an accredited MBE through the National Minority Supplier Development Council. By that time, the company already worked with aerospace companies like Lockheed Martin, and manufacturers including Tesla and Cargill.

Many of his clients don’t know Oxidizers is an MBE, and when meeting him, some clients seem surprised to see a Black man at the helm, Lambert said.

“I’ll have a project manager working on the project, and when I come down, people are a little shocked,” he said.

The movement to bring in diverse suppliers to the manufacturing industry is not new. General Motors had one of the earliest supplier diversity programs, starting in 1968. And aerospace manufacturer Boeing added one in the late 1990s.

Supplier diversity efforts support corporate DEI goals, but how helpful are they at bringing MBEs and other diverse groups into the industry?

While some aerospace companies are making public efforts to bring in these suppliers, the efforts don’t always succeed in making it easier for them to bid on or obtain contracts.

Signing onto a vendor platform is one thing. Getting the chance to actually sell goods or services is another, particularly in a sector where trust is critical and stakes are high.

Defining diversity in supplier relations

Diverse supplier definitions often differ by company. Some use “small businesses” and “supplier diversity” interchangeably, though they are different, Amber Hanlon, senior manager of social responsibility regulatory programs for Collins Aerospace, told Supply Chain Dive. Hanlon is also a past president of the Alliance of Supplier Diversity Professionals.

“When we say small business, we are always talking about the U.S. government program,” she said, referring to the definitions set by the federal Small Business Administration.

But supplier diversity includes more than small businesses, Hanlon said. It can include those such as minority-owned, veteran-owned, LGBTQ+-owned or woman-owned businesses — so long as the company is at least 51% owned by members of these groups.

Top industries for MBEs 2022, by revenue (in billions)

Manufacturing tops the list for minority-owned businesses in the U.S., despite the difficulties some aerospace suppliers say they still face in securing contracts.

Getting diverse suppliers a seat at the table

It’s hard to know the extent to which these aerospace manufacturers’ programs have created opportunities for diverse suppliers.

Boeing boasted of working with 6,000 small and diverse suppliers in 2020, including 600 veteran-owned businesses and 850 women-owned entities.

Lambert said his certification has increased communications between his company and manufacturers, but “I can’t say it’s brought about a revenue increase.”

He noted, however, that getting new aerospace clients can take years, regardless of diversity status.

“It’s a challenge to get to the table, no matter who you are,” Lambert said.

This difficulty is partly due to the fact that providing goods and services to aerospace companies is more difficult than to other manufacturers, said Rhonda Dibachi, co-founder and CEO of HeyScottie, an AI-enabled metal finishing services marketplace.

“There are standards you have to conform to,” Dibachi said. “You don’t want to blow up a rocket. From a liability perspective, it’s much greater than the car window motor going out.”

Pilar Bernd started the Hispanic, woman-owned business The Bernd Group in 1989 to streamline the procurement process for high-tech manufacturers.

She got her initial customers through self-promotion and word of mouth. She later joined the National Minority Supplier Development Council and started attending its trade shows, where CEOs would share how to do business with them.

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