Magazine article Workforce Management

ALCOA Does Its Bit for the World-And Its Own Image-With Earthwatch Projects

Magazine article Workforce Management

ALCOA Does Its Bit for the World-And Its Own Image-With Earthwatch Projects

Article excerpt

Like a number of other companies, the manufacturer gets to be a good corporate citizen as it sends workers to help with scientific expeditions

IN DECEMBER 2003, the furthest thing from Jason Suiter's mind was excavating a Roman archaeological dig. The 41-year-old equipment operator had been with the Alcoa-Davenport Works in Riverdale, Iowa, for 20 years and, as a factory worker, held no dreams of a life spent in scientific research.

Which is why he was surprised to find himself, six months later, painstakingly removing a sixth-century oil lamp from an ancient Roman fort along the Danube in Halmyris, Romania. Only slightly less surprising was that Pittsburgh-based Alcoa, the world's leading aluminum producer and distributor, was paying for the experience.

Suiter had read about the opportunity in the Alcoa-Davenport Works newsletter. (The works manufactures aluminum sheet and plate for use in aircraft wings and also manufactures products for the defense industry.) In partnership with the Earthwatch Institute, 15 Alcoa employees would be afforded the chance to participate in scientific research projects around the world.

The Earthwatch Institute, based in Maynard, Massachusetts, is a charitable organization that supports scientific research projects through the work of volunteers. For $700 to $4,000, excluding travel expenses, participants can aid in the study of crocodiles in the Kalahari Desert, determine the health of coral reefs in the Bahamas, document the culture of a traditional Chinese village before its relocation, or support any one of about 140 scientific expeditions in 48 countries. Each volunteer spends one or two weeks as part of a team led by a research scientist, and no special skills or background are required. All necessary training is provided on-site.

The institute was formed in 1971 in response to a severe reduction in government funding for scientific research, says Blue Magruder, director of public affairs at Earthwatch. With the lack of support, important environmental and social studies were being ignored or left unfinished.

"We decided to reach out to amateurs," Magruder says.

The interest, labor and funding for these projects were in place. All that was needed was an organization to bring them together.

While the program originally relied on individual participants, Earthwatch was approached by Atlanta-based GNB Battery Technologies in 1995 with the suggestion of forming a corporate partnership. As GNB sent more plant managers into the field, they started "waking up to the company's role in nature," Magruder says.

This is a familiar and growing trend, says Brian Dill, senior director of corporate relations for Earthwatch. As more attention is focused on the global environment, employees, consumers and, more importantly to firms, shareholders now expect companies to produce detailed goals and tangible results with regard to corporate social responsibility.

The connection between social responsibility and shareholder value is still seen as tenuous by the investment community at large, but may soon be more demonstrable, according to a recent report by Mercer Investment Consuiting's socially responsible investing research team in the United Kingdom.

"From a theoretical standpoint, we have some sympathy with the argument that 'socially responsible' companies are likely to be better performers, over the long term, relative to competitors with lower standards," report author Emily Whitaker writes. "The increasing emphasis on the importance of social and environmental considerations, together with the ever-increasing importance on brand value will mean that many companies will strive to ensure that they do not break those 'rules' and suffer the potential negative impact on share price."

Dill says that commitment has to involve a company's workers.

"Companies see a real need to engage employees for corporate responsibility," he says, "They need programs that are not only sexy but that capture their (employees') hearts and minds. …

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