On July 17, 2017, Minnesota Department of Human Rights Commissioner, Kevin Lindsey, announced increased Workforce Participation Goals for women and people of color. In the 2017 Minnesota Workforce Goals Report, Commissioner Lindsey writes, “Despite progress in eliminating bias, barriers still remain for women and people of color [in the construction industry] in Minnesota.”
The goals apply to construction contracts over $100,000 entered into by the Metropolitan Sports Facility Authority, Metropolitan Council, Metropolitan Airports Commission, Metropolitan Mosquito Control Commission and the State of Minnesota. Previously, Minnesota had a statewide hiring goal for tradeswomen of 6% (lower than the Federal 6.9% goal). Now, projects in Hennepin and Ramsey counties have a 20% goal. Anoka, Carver, Dakota, Scott and Washington now have a 15% goal. Central Minnesota’s hiring goal for women is 12%, and Northeast, Northwest, Southeast & Southwest Minnesota are at 9%.
The change in hiring goals has largely gone unnoted by the press. A few contractor organizations have released brief statements questioning the reasoning or the need for the increase in goal numbers or suggesting a gradual increase. For example, the Minnesota Utility Contractor Association (MUCA) labels the raising of the goal for women “unreasonable”, stating, “MUCA continues advocating for MDHR, MnDOT and DEED to focus on Increasing the Pool of qualified candidates, as opposed to continually setting a higher goal without a realized pool to draw from.”
With the amount of regulations and performance expectations put on contractors today, this increase in hiring goals can seem like one more “extra” put into their performance requirements. However, there has been a long history of implicit and explicit bias against women working in the building trades.
During the largest part of United States (U.S.) history, women were, by practice, not allowed to join building craft unions nor were contractors hiring women as trades workers. In 1976, a consortium of women’s groups sued the U.S. Department of Labor for failing to provide enforcement of gender equality within the construction industry. Per the Civil Rights Act of 1964, workplaces are not legally allowed to discriminate against women. Affirmative action goals were already in place for men of color on construction jobs using federal dollars.
President Jimmy Carter allowed for the settling of the lawsuit by setting hiring goals for women—initially at 3.1%, then increased to 6.9% in 1981. The initial setting of the goal was the first time women were admitted to building craft unions in any notable numbers. Today, though women comprise just under 50% of the overall U.S. workforce, tradeswomen are still only approximately 3% of construction workers. No one stays in an industry if they do not go to work and, in the past, tradeswomen have been blocked in many ways from working. Discriminatory practices against tradeswomen have included not being referred for work, consistently being the first laid off, and not getting proper training.
However, the construction industry is currently in need of workers. Baby boomer aged tradespeople continue to retire. Young people are often strongly encouraged to go to college, and this push to send high numbers of high school graduates to college has subverted one of the traditional recruitment mechanisms for the trades—father-son recruitment or knowing someone in the trades and following in his or her path.
Case Study in How to Reach Higher and Exceed Hiring Goals: Massachusetts
The Policy Group on Tradeswomen’s Issues (PGTI) is a Massachusetts (MA) based collaboration of over 75 construction industry stakeholders, including tradeswomen, building trades unions, contractors, government representatives, community organizations and researchers. The group, which has met every other month for 10 years, has been making inroads in increasing tradeswomen numbers.
The PGTI group has found the biggest question construction industry leaders have is, “How do we increase tradeswomen’s numbers?” PGTI developed the Integrated Supply and Demand Model. Traditionally, a focus of tradeswomen’s advocates was recruiting and training women for building trade occupations (for example, see pre-apprenticeship programs developed over decades by Chicago Women in Trades and Oregon Tradeswomen Inc.). This work is important and is supported by PGTI. However, PGTI’s approach has given equal weight to creating demand for tradeswomen on the work site as a way to work toward eliminating bias the construction industry traditionally had for male workers.
Regarding hiring goals, PGTI’s partners have developed relationships with construction project owners and General Contractors, and done extensive work with tracking work hour data to assist with full compliance of goals for tradeswomen. Their strategy is focused on Targeted Projects, large public and private work projects, where large numbers of women can get steady long-term employment, and where the projects act as models for success in complying with requirements to hire women.
The Case for Unions to Lead the Way in Construction Workforce Diversity
Building construction trade staff have been founding as well as stalwart members of PGTI—which likely, at least in part, contributes to the unionized sector’s successes with diversifying its workforce. Since 2012, MA has tripled the number of women in union apprenticeship.
In MA, unions outpaced the non-union sector with women in their training pipelines. Non-union apprenticeship had less than 50 women in registered apprenticeship compared to the union sector training 515 women in JATC programs as of the first quarter of 2018. Furthermore, PGTI focuses on recruiting women—which has assisted with simultaneously raising women and people of color participation numbers because, in MA, 55% of women entering building trade apprenticeships are women of color.
Tradeswomen and tradeswomen advocates in Minnesota and across the country have been agitating for change with the slogan: 20% by 2020. That is 20% of building construction trades workers in Minnesota being women within the next two years on all jobsites. Why not? Begin with recruitment for apprenticeship programs—innovative recruitment letting women know they’re welcome in the trades. Bring a high functioning, engaged, dedicated, broad coalition together to make sure all contractors can meet the new state hiring goals.
Unions can lead this charge—they have been in Massachusetts, they can in Minnesota. So, while the new goals, in one sense, support the demand aspect of PGTI’s Integrated Supply and Demand Model—for women in the building trades, the goals support more opportunities for careers in the building trades.
Heidi Wagner is an assistant professor at The School for Workers. Dr. Wagner’s work includes advancing research and advocacy skills supporting human resource diversity in the building trades, the larger construction industry, blue collar fields, and STEM education.