Countering the John Henryism Narrative: A Case Study to Explore How Early-Career Black Engineers Respond to Working Conditions

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Virginia Tech


Adaptability is crucial in the engineering workplace, particularly for Black engineers. Job postings use different terms such as resiliency, agility, or flexibility to denote the importance of adaptability for a role. However, there is a lack of exploration into what adaptability means for individuals from racially marginalized backgrounds. For Black engineers, navigating work responsibilities is complicated by the social ramifications of their racial identity. Simply framing their efforts as adaptability overlooks the impact of racialization and the complex interplay of working conditions on career decisions.

This study aimed to understand how being racialized as Black influences how Black engineers respond to changing working conditions. Working conditions encompass the tools used for work, the workplace environment, and the workforce composition. The central question for this study was: How do Black engineers respond to various working conditions encountered during the early stages of their engineering career?

A multiple case study approach was employed, focusing on the experiences of eight early-career Black engineers. The participants were selected based on their self-identification as Black, regardless of ethnicity, considering the commonplace of racialization in the United States. Interviews and resumes were utilized to comprehensively capture their work experiences. Analysis revealed ten key characteristics of working conditions and five adaptability responses. These responses exhibited a temporal nature, leading to the development of sub-adaptability responses. Vignettes were crafted to contextualize participants' responses to salient working conditions. Participants sought to achieve work-life balance, derive meaning from their work, and have a sense of belonging in their careers. The perception of their ability to achieve these goals influenced the turnover intention of Black engineers within their organization.

This study expands our understanding of factors influencing Black engineers' retention and informs prospective engineers of prioritized outcomes other Black engineers have used to navigate their careers. These findings can be used by organizations to inform the strategies they use to foster the retention and advancement of Black engineers in the engineering workforce.



race, engineering, adaptability, career theory, case study