As suburban metro-area counties grow more diverse, their workforces have not.

In Carver, Scott, Washington and Anoka counties, minorities hold between 2 and 5 percent of county jobs, while the overall minority populations range from 9 to 15 percent. The 849-member Carver County workforce included 16 people of color this year; just 56 of 1,760 Anoka County workers are minorities.

Officials cite familiar reasons for the numbers: tight budgets that have curtailed hiring or caused job cuts, commuters who face limited transportation options, and resources that remain scarce for outreach in minority communities. One county also acknowledged that its top officials haven't pushed diversity hiring as a high priority.

But as current employees retire, suburban areas are beginning to face up to the challenge of hiring more minorities and making their workforces reflect their communities, where 60 percent of the region's minority population now lives.

"Changing the system of how you operate takes a real commitment," said the Rev. Paul Slack, president of ISAIAH, a Twin Cities faith coalition that works on housing and economic issues. "They've been able to say for a long time that we tried. They now have to say that effort wasn't good enough."

It isn't an insurmountable challenge, activists contend.

Hennepin and Ramsey counties, for example, have minority workforces of 21 and 22 percent, respectively, and minority populations of 29 and 33 percent.

When waves of Hmong, Somali and Latino immigrants came to the Twin Cities, leaders in those two counties were quick to realize that a commitment to diversity "wasn't just a nice thing to do, but the right thing to do," said Louis King, a longtime activist who currently runs a nonprofit center offering minority-oriented job skills training.

Other counties "should shamelessly steal ideas from their success," he said.

Frustrations, priorities

Of the seven metro-area counties, Carver has the smallest overall minority population, at 9 percent. Diversity recruiting "is not an area we've been asked in a real powerful way to pursue" by our leaders and elected officials, said Doris Krogman, the county's employee relations director.

Jobs are posted at workforce centers and elsewhere, officials attend job fairs and "we are happy when we see people of color coming through to apply for jobs," Krogman said. The county also has a good record of retaining minority employees, she said.

A lack of worker diversity is a source of frustration to Jack Kemme, Scott County's employee relations director. The county is experiencing an influx of people of color, but finding a talent pool with the requisite skills to fill a shrinking number of county jobs has proved difficult, Kemme said.

"In our last resident survey, most felt the community as a whole is open to people of diverse backgrounds," he said. "We just need to keep recruiting. If we get a larger base of diverse employees, it becomes its own recruiting source."

Hiring freeze

In Washington County, reduced state aid the last few years resulted in a hiring freeze, putting minority recruiting on the back burner, said County Administrator Molly O'Rourke. With a minority population that has doubled in the past decade, however, the county has hired a consultant to rework strategic planning to put more emphasis on recruitment and retention of minority employees, she said.

"People tend to like to live where they work. You look at the radius around our government center in Stillwater and the population base is mostly white," she said. "Most of our minority population lives along the western edge of the county, and it's easier to get to downtown St. Paul instead of Stillwater. We need to reach out to those folks."

About 4.7 percent of Wash-ington County employees are people of color, while the county as a whole has a minority population of about 14 percent. However, the latter number is inflated by the inmates in state prisons in Stillwater and Oak Park Heights.

In Dakota County, 9 percent of county workers are minorities. Employee Relations Director Nancy Hohbach said the county prepared a plan to encourage diversity hiring after a boom in the minority population starting in 2004. The county trained managers in cultural competency and established a diversity trainee program, she said. The numbers are also helped by having government centers in Hastings, Apple Valley and West St. Paul instead of a single, central location.

Anoka County diversity

Andre Koen was Anoka County's diversity and cultural coordinator until he left a few months ago to launch his own workplace diversity and cultural consulting business. When offered the county job, his friends of color gave him some pushback and told him he would face challenges in the predominantly white area, he said.

"They were giving it to me from their historical perspective," he said. They said it "was white, blue-collar and very Archie Bunker-like."

In addition to diversity recruitment, Koen conducted training, wrote an internal newsletter on cultural norms, worked with county social service workers and law enforcement, and engaged employees to attend diversity events outside the county. He received local and national awards.

During his tenure, the number of county employees of color rose from a low of 37 to 56 in 2011. He wanted more success.

"I had a longterm strategy and I ran out of time," he said. "There are no quick fixes."

To his disappointment, his former job will merge into another human relations position that won't deal exclusively with diversity issues.

Melanie Ault, director of human resources, said the county has a solid history of employees staying for a long time, meaning slow turnover. The county sends representatives to job fairs and places job postings at affirmative action sites, and has seen an increase in minority applicants, she said. The county also will be re-marketing itself as an employer because many people pass over county jobs when pursuing a career, she said.

Koen says he believes that county leaders were enthusiastic when he first came aboard, and that some of the support waned a few years later.

In his new job, he recently led diversity sessions at a statewide jail administration conference and was pleased to see that many attendees were from Anoka County.

"My separation didn't create a disconnect, and hopefully the visions and ideas I had about diversity will go forward," he said. "They don't have all the answers and neither do I."

David Chanen • 612-673-4465