Times have changed since the days when racism and prejudice made construction jobs hard to get and miserable to hold for people of color. Nowadays, what matters on most job sites is not what workers look like, but how well they do their jobs.
Still, a visitor to a typical construction project is likely to see a workforce that is noticeably less diverse than the neighboring community. At the same time, the industry faces a continuing challenge to fill jobs being vacated by workers who are taking their skills and experience with them into retirement, while construction markets continue to grow, further increasing the demand for new blood in the crafts.
"People are hungry and need jobs, and we have an industry that needs people. Come on. What is the problem?" asked Ruby Jones, director of community outreach for Turner Construction in Seattle. After 10 years with Turner, Jones said she is weary of asking the same question that should have been answered long ago.
David Allen, executive vice president of business development and branding at Seattle mechanical contractor McKinstry Co., said he thinks the problem is that the construction industry's image doesn't appeal to young people considering a career choice, no matter what race they are. The task facing the industry — contractors and unions alike — is to change the stereotype of construction as dirty, dangerous and unrewarding work, he said, and to get the message across to young people, their parents and educators.
"The crafts issue is about telling kids that skilled craftsmen are highly paid and highly trained," he said. "It's really important for minorities to know how good an opportunity there is in construction. There's a tremendous opportunity because there's work out there. It's not a sin not to go to college."
Jones has a different take. Requirements for entering apprenticeship programs, such as having a driver's license and taking a pre-application class in order to pass a math test, can be very difficult for certain people to overcome, she explained.
"The unions need to re-think how they are doing things," she said. "It's like a bottleneck. You can get kids pumped up, but when you get them to the door and they face barriers, we lose them before they start. It just goes on and on."
Jones and Allen agree that there are some encouraging local programs taking hold to address the problem. Jones is an active member of Construction Apprenticeship & Workforce Solutions Inc., an organization in Portland, Ore., that seeks to increase the representation of persons of color and women in construction; Allen mentioned Sound Alliance, an interfaith Seattle group that targets disadvantaged children at the middle school level.
"Construction is a local industry," Allen said. "We have to fix the problem locally by shifting the paradigm to what kids' dreams are."
CAWS and Sound Alliance are taking a coalition approach that seems to be effective. CAWS stakeholders include major public and private developers, general contractors, trade unions, apprenticeship training organizations, and community-based organizations in the Portland area. Similarly, Sound Alliance members come from citizens' groups, religious organizations and labor unions, including teachers' organizations.
In the Midwest, the Carpenters' District Council of Greater Saint Louis and Vicinity has reported good success at recruiting minority candidates from local high schools by hosting outreach programs, career days, tours through its Belleville, Ill., training center, and more.
In addition, the council has taken steps to become more applicant-friendly. Entry into the training program requires just a letter of intent; applicants undergo a drug test during the first week of training, they take the math test six months later, and they must earn a GED no later than one year after starting training, according to an article in the Illinois Business Journal.
Collaborative efforts to diversify the construction work force in the Milwaukee area are making progress as well through the Center of Excellence — representing the Building Industry Group Skilled Trades Employment Program, also known as Big Step, and the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership.
In a year-and-a-half through January 2007, 24.3 percent of the new building trades apprentices in metro Milwaukee were people of color, reflecting the racial diversity of the four-county area, according to a report cited in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. That's in sharp contrast to research released in early 2006 by the NAACP and the Employment & Training Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee showing that southeastern Wisconsin's 475 contractors mostly lacked workers of color.
"We feel like we're making progress, but we can't stop here. We have to continue on and improve those numbers even more," John Topp, executive director of the Construction Labor Management Council of Southeast Wisconsin Inc., told the newspaper.
On the so-called merit shop side of the industry, the Indiana chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors has instituted the "Major Opportunities" pre-apprenticeship training program, which is aimed at boosting the number of minority craftworkers entering the state's construction workforce.
Recent years have seen a large influx of Hispanic workers into the allied trades, particularly drywall and concrete work. In fact, a 2004 study by professors at the Texas A&M University reported that Hispanics are the fastest-growing minority population in the construction industry.
The recruitment of Hispanic workers into the construction industry is complicated, however, by the large number of immigrants who speak English sparingly, if at all. Whether the language factor contributes to the inordinately high percentage of Hispanic fatalities in the construction industry, which was the focus of the Texas A&M study, is open to debate. But no one doubts that it is imperative for supervisors to be able to communicate with workers — and for workers to be able to communicate with each other — on the construction site.
Lately the industry has been shifting direction regarding the language issue. Years ago, the effort was directed without much success at urging Spanish-speaking workers to learn English as a second language. Now, there are programs through Associated General Contractors that provide Spanish-language training for English-speaking construction superintendents and foremen.
In Seattle, a continuing education class presented by the AGC Education Foundation met twice a week during July and August, focused on developing core Spanish language skills and terminology rather than mastering the entire language.
"Enhancing communication in the construction industry is the main goal of this course," a flyer for the class stated. "Supervisors will become more proficient in cross-lingual communications with Spanish speakers resulting in safer job sites, increased productivity and improved worker relations."
Similarly, Chevron's Lubricants University, an online training resource, announced in April that it will offer its "Fundamentals of Lubrication" training course in Spanish. The course targets Spanish-speaking industrial maintenance professionals and maintenance departments with Spanish-speaking employees interested in gaining an understanding of lubrication and its role in preventing wear and friction in mechanical equipment.
"We have seen the number of Spanish-speaking maintenance professionals grow with the increasing Hispanic population in the United States," said Virginia Moser, training coordinator, Chevron North America Lubricants. "To reach this developing market, it made sense to offer our most popular course in Spanish."
Going hand in hand with language classes is a proliferation of books and other teaching aids. Typical of these is a handy book from Cool Springs Press titled "Communicating with Spanish Workers: Contractor's Edition." Author Trish Rodriguez's handy book contains common construction phrases in English with Spanish translations and pronunciations.
Collaborative and innovative programs, coupled with an enlightened attitude and hard work, are helping to diversify the work force in the nation's construction industry. With demand for skilled workers growing by the day, these efforts are essential.
"America's not as racist as it used to be," McKinstry's Allen pointed out. "A lot of what used to be real impediments for minorities are gone. I'm thrilled about it."