On Record: Percentages

I’ve yet to talk to a contractor who wouldn’t welcome a willing, capable worker, whatever their ilk. Heck, if that same worker put in the long hours required to take on a crew leadership role, these contractors would be dancing a jig. A reliable foreman is pure gold these days.

Making a color distinction when it comes to hiring means you deserve all the manpower problems you’re going to get.

So I’m noting with a shake of my head the August 30th report, “The Road to Jobs: Patterns of Employment in the Construction Industry,” produced by St. Louis University and sponsored by the Transportation Equity Network. TEN, which calls itself of “a coalition of about 300 grassroots groups,” says its affiliates in 18 metropolitan areas are working to “open up the construction industry to African Americans, women and others.”

Notice a minority group that’s conspicuously missing in that quote? In fact, the report goes on to say “Hispanics are generally well-represented in construction jobs.” On the other hand, in the 18 metropolitan areas the report examined, “if blacks were employed in construction at the same rate they are employed in the overall workforce, we estimate that 42,700 more blacks would be employed.”

Still, “this data should not be interpreted as Latinos taking jobs away from blacks,” said report author Todd Swanstrom in USA Today.

When you take a look at the numbers coming out of the Pew Hispanic Center, though, you have to wonder. According to Pew, Hispanic workers landed two out of every three new construction jobs in 2006. “The vast majority of new construction jobs were filled by foreign-born Latinos, many of them recently arrived,” reported the research organization in a March 7th report. Pew estimates that Hispanics accounted for 25 percent of the total 2006 employment of 11.8 million construction workers.

TEN knows it would be politically imprudent to exclude Hispanics in its proposed remedies. These remedies include requiring federal and state transportation programs to reserve 30 percent of the work hours on highway and transit projects for “low-income people, ex-offenders, minorities and women.” In addition, TEN wants to make mandatory a now-voluntary provision in the federal transportation law that allows states to use 0.5 percent of their federal highway funds for workforce development – a requirement it says would generate $1.43 billion if applied to all federal transportation projects.

While contractors working on federal highway projects have higher hiring hoops to go through than contractors doing private work, construction is no longer the all-white enclave it was in the 1980s. In many cases, in order to meet these proposed regulations contractors would be able to use the exact same workforce they’re using right now.

Instead of dealing with dictated percentages, let’s look at the opportunity this workforce development money – if truly flexible – could bring to the table. There are few who would argue against its use if it resulted in a significant amount of young people entering – and staying – in this industry.