By Wanda Kirkpatrick
Sixteen years ago, when Gwen Miller told family and friends she was going to be a construction worker, the reaction was, “Are you kidding me?”
Miller wasn’t kidding. Her children’s misgivings quickly turned around when food appeared on the Thanksgiving table and presents showed up under the Christmas tree. Over the years, Miller has bought a home in New Hope and built a solid life for herself and her family.
Today she still takes pride in her old construction sites. “I just glow when I drive by,” she said, ticking off a long list of her projects, including the giant scoreboards at Target Field and TCF Bank Stadium.
Her latest venture is the Central Corridor light-rail project, a special job because it’s a challenging assignment to squeeze a major street railway into an already built-up neighborhood. One of Miller’s harder tasks was directing dump trucks in and out of a tight construction zone. “At one point I was handling 24 trucks at a time,” she said.
The job is challenging, but she loves it. As an African American, Miller sees the construction trades as a pathway that inner-city minorities too often rule out, assuming that it’s a career only for men and mostly for Whites.
As a young woman in North Minneapolis, it was the Minneapolis Urban League that first brought the possibility of a construction career to her attention. “More people should get the training and try it,” she said.
We at the Metropolitan Council, as builders of the line, have made it a top priority to maximize opportunities for minorities and women to work on this construction project. From the start, the council and its partners have been committed to meeting the federal government’s targets for hiring qualified workers who have been historically disadvantaged in the construction trades.
Those hiring targets are clearly within reach, with two-thirds of the project yet to be built.
Most recent numbers show that minority workers accounted for nearly 18 percent of all construction hours logged on the project, and women accounted for more than six percent. Meanwhile, contracting firms owned by women or minorities have accounted for $26 million spent on the project so far.
That puts contractors on pace to meet the federal goals based on data for our region: 18 percent of the project’s work hours performed by minorities, six percent performed by women, and 15 percent of dollars spent business enterprises).
What do we do if there are problems meeting the targets? We’ve found it most productive to work with a company to find out what it takes for them to find qualified workers. In today’s construction field, people have to be trained and certified, and right now there’s an undersupply of qualified minority workers.
So there’s a bigger task at hand, and that’s to convince young people of color that the construction trades — carpenter, truck driver, pipefitter, plumber, electrician, heavy equipment operator and others — offer a pathway to better economic opportunities.
What’s needed is to really push information and training, and that’s where we’ve been taking extraordinary steps.
The Met Council and our partners have hosted dozens of workshops, field trips, information sessions and community meetings, all to help recruit minority and women workers for Central Corridor construction. And we have a long list of community partners — the Urban League, Summit Academy and other trainers, the labor unions, the construction companies, nonprofit organizations, local elected officials, the Department of Human Rights and other government agencies.
A website called LRT Works (www.lrtworks.org) has been started to match workers with jobs, companies and unions. About 1,500 workers have signed up. No qualified, certified minority construction worker has been turned away on the Central Corridor project. Not one.
Our process has been public and transparent. Each month, we host a public oversight meeting where progress on minority hiring and contracting is discussed, assessed and sometimes criticized. Thanks to comments at our October meeting, we changed the timing in our gathering of statistics in order to provide more current hiring information to the public.
We have stepped up efforts to train and hire minority workers and to encourage DBEs, and we keep a closer eye on DBEs to make sure that these firms are indeed operated by women or minorities and they’re doing meaningful work.
With the Central Corridor project we’ve opened up economic opportunities, and we’re going to keep at it so more people of color can enjoy a bigger slice of the American pie.
Wanda Kirkpatrick is director of the Office of Diversity and Equal Opportunity at the Metropolitan Council.