September 27, 2021

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Diversity goals rarely met on Minn. construction projects

8 min read

Minnesota spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually on construction, but the contractors building roads, transit and buildings rarely meet state goals for hiring a diverse workforce.

In dozens of instances over the past two years, companies contracting with the state did not employ a single woman or person of color as part of their construction team.

Some in the industry called the state’s goals unattainable, because there still are not enough women and people of color entering and staying in the field. Minnesota officials acknowledge the numbers are aspirational but say they are critical to ensure progress.

“We have major racial disparities in this state and we have an industry that is aging that has, in the past, not been very diverse,” said Salima Khakoo, equity and inclusion supervisor at the state Department of Human Rights. “What happens if we don’t have these workforce goals? It is really the glue that is holding all these players accountable, from the industry or private sector, to the sector that is training, to the union sector. It is the thing that is holding us all together.”

Minnesota’s diversity hiring goals vary across the state. Companies repairing a bridge or state building in northeast Minnesota must aim to have women work 9% of the total hours spent on a project, and people of color work 12%. The goals are more than twice as high for contractors working in Hennepin or Ramsey counties.

Last year, construction companies wrapped up 167 state contracts that cost $100,000 or more. Contractors met the latest goals for women in their workforce in just 12 of those cases, and only 26 times for people of color, Department of Human Rights data show. The numbers were even lower in 2019.

Several longtime industry members say the “boots on the ground” construction workforce has become more diverse, but a complicated mix of factors make that growth slow and difficult.

It is a challenge to recruit women to a physically demanding field that historically hasn’t been inclusive, say union members and women in construction. It’s also a struggle to retain them, industry members said, noting that women sometimes opt for the predictability of construction office jobs instead of working in the field. Those positions, like project managers, are not counted toward contractor diversity goals.

State officials bumped up the goal for women’s work hours on a project from 6% to 20% for Hennepin and Ramsey counties in 2017. There’s no penalty for failing to meet the numbers, but contractors need to show they are making an effort, and state officials will connect them with nonprofits or technical colleges to improve their diversity.

That 2017 increase was too dramatic, said Association of Women Contractors Executive Director Barb Lau, and companies get “blasted at every turn” for coming up short on hiring a diverse staff.

“With what? With who?” she said. “If they are not there, how do you expect us to do it?”

The high goals lead to contractors “bicycling” — meaning they move the few women or people of color in their workforce around to various sites to try to rack up percentages on different projects, making it difficult for them to build connections with a team, Lau said. She said the state should devote more resources to studying why people leave the jobs and getting young women and people of color in the pipeline to fill construction jobs as boomers retire.

The four members of a diverse crew working on fencing and water management along the Southwest Light Rail line last week said there should be more outreach about the well-paid jobs in the trades. Maria Workman, the group’s foreman who is 55, said she entered the field about four years ago for one reason: “The benefits.”

“Sometimes we make more than people who have college degrees,” chimed in Francis Kirunda, who worked in construction in Uganda and continued to do so after moving to the U.S.

Equipment operator apprentice Sam Diederich said she was aware of these job options, because many members of her family, including her mom, have been in the Local 49 union that includes heavy equipment operators and mechanics. But she said many students don’t consider the trades.

Her union has started offering classes to high school students to teach them about heavy equipment, Diederich said. There need to be more programs like that, she said, and students need to hear: “You don’t always have to have a college degree to be successful in life.”

Nonprofit Construct Tomorrow educates young people about industry jobs and has emphasized connecting with Black, Indigenous and other students of color, said Nate O’Reilly, who co-chairs the organization’s board. But he said their efforts, like school visits, encountered a major setback during COVID-19.

O’Reilly suggested more government entities should have contractor diversity goals, noting that school district and local government projects often do not follow the state’s requirements. Legislators prompted some movement on that front last year by shifting to have workforce goals apply to all projects paid for with state general obligation bonds. However, that requirement doesn’t take effect until 2022, so it does not apply to projects funded by the historic $1.9 billion bonding bill passed last year.

It’s more difficult to hire a diverse workforce for road projects than for construction of a building, which brings in a wider array of specialties, say industry members. That challenge was evident in an audit of the Minnesota Department of Transportation, published in May, which found the department rarely met state workforce goals in recent years. The Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor determined the agency’s contracting goal and preference programs — aimed at increasing the number of contractors who are women, veterans, people of color and people with physical disabilities — had minimal effects.

Auditors recommended the Legislature review whether they want to give state agencies more authority in enforcing workforce goals. They also suggested MnDOT should do more to monitor contractors’ efforts.

A company that bids for a MnDOT project must acknowledge the workforce goals. But the agency does little to track or work with companies to try to meet the numbers if the contract is less than $5 million, the audit stated. MnDOT is updating some of its reporting and looking at how to use technology to better monitor workforce goals, said Sean Skibbie, director of the agency’s Office of Civil Rights.

“As a government office, we do have limited resources,” he added. “So we do have to be mindful of … which projects we can make an imprint on, which contracts are where most of the hiring is taking place and where those opportunities are to diversify the workforce.”

The $2 billion Southwest Light Rail line — the most expensive public works project in Minnesota history — has been a key focus for state and corporate officials.

They are working with apprentice programs, high schools, Dunwoody College of Technology and even Scout troops to try to bring a wider array of people into the trades, said Christa Seaberg, corporate equal employment opportunity officer for Lunda Construction, one of the major project contractors. She said they have also emphasized the importance of a “respectful workplace” to try to retain people.

As of June 30, women had worked about 8% of the total hours spent on the project’s construction, and people of color had worked around 22%, far behind the state’s goals.

But Diederich, who was working near the line’s Blake Road Station last week, said she has never seen so many women on a project. In the past, Diederich said she’s worked with “old-timers” who weren’t completely comfortable with having her on the job, but the environment on the light rail project feels different.

“Back when my mom was a 49er, guys weren’t welcoming. It’s a man’s world,” Diederich said. “Now I don’t feel that way as much.”

Jessie Van Berkel • 651-925-5044

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