St. Paul aims to lead in workforce racial equity

Concerns over ‘unrealistic’ hiring goals have proven unfounded

 

By Charles Hallman

Staff Writer

 

Nearly $105 million in St. Paul City contracts was awarded in 2013 to businesses owned by people of color, women-owned, and small businesses, according to Saint Paul’s Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity (HREEO) annual report. That was about 41 percent of the “total business opportunity” of more than $255 million. Approximately 18.6 percent of this “total business opportunity,” or $47.5 million of the contracts awarded last year, went to small businesses; $38.5 million (15 percent of total) went to women-owned businesses; and $18.8 million (7 percent of total) went to businesses owned by people of color.

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Jessie Kingston Photo by Charles Hallman

Saint Paul’s Vendor Outreach Program (VOP) “requires the city to establish goals for contracting with” minority-owned (MBE), women-owned (WBE) and small business enterprises (SBE) on city construction projects, Saint Paul Housing and Redevelopment Authority projects, and contracts for professional services,” stated the 2013 HREEO annual report. The overall business inclusion goal is 25 percent for VOP-certified businesses: five percent MBE, 10 percent WBE, and 10 percent SBE.

The city’s workforce inclusion goal is aligned with the state’s Human Rights Department goal of 32 percent “minority” and six percent women set in 2012. HREEO reports that nearly 17 percent or over 1.5 million hours of labor was done by people of color, and females did over four percent on City construction projects.

Inclusion is the best way of doing business, but too often government and private companies “have different ways of doing things,” stated HREEO Director Jessie Kingston, who recently sat down with the MSR in her City Hall office. She and Readus Fletcher, the City’s contract compliance, business development and human rights deputy director, support the state workforce inclusion goals. But both officials also admit that initially there was some concern if these hiring benchmarks actually could be achieved.

“I think there was a concern [among some], but there is a workforce out there,” said Kingston. “The communities really [came] together to meet this goal and understand that we need to be reflecting our community.”

St. Paul compares very favorably to Minneapolis and other metro area cities in workforce and business inclusion, said Fletcher. “You are seeing a continual increase in minority participation in construction trades, in the apprentice

 Readus Fletcher
Readus Fletcher

programs” and the local colleges increasing their numbers to help prepare future workers, “but it’s still a gap,” he pointed out.

“We are not having a problem in the labor portion,” Fletcher said of hiring Blacks and other workers of color, “but on the skilled labor there is a problem because heretofore there haven’t been enough minorities in the trades’ occupation for a whole lot of reasons. They didn’t get the opportunity or there wasn’t a pipeline set up.

“We’re working on trying [to get] the pipeline started, to get to at least one-third of the population in construction. I think the entire metro area is still working at it,” said Fletcher.

Kingston’s office posts monthly construction workforce updates on six major publicly funded projects to the City’s website. The following cumulative data is for September 2014:

• Custom Home Project: 59 percent people of color, 10 percent women

• Episcopal Homes: 22 percent people of color, six percent women

• Lowertown Ballpark: 28 percent people of color, nine percent women

• Ordway/McKnight Theatre Expansion: 27 percent people of color, nearly eight percent women

• Pioneer-Endicott Building: 17 percent people of color, six percent women

• Victoria Park Apartments: 20 percent people of color, 1.35 percent women

“We certainly feel we are on the right track,” Kingston stated. “At this point, [I am] very comfortable with the transparency that we rolled out with the St.PaulBids.com.”

St. Paul launched the site in January of this year for city bidding opportunities and purchase orders. Kingston also is proud of how St. Paul has “brought the minority and women vendors into the loop ahead of time” to bid for City contracts, as well as working with prime contractors.

“With 2,000 vendors out there…we know that there are a lot more” that need to register and get certified through StPaulBids.com, she stressed. “I am going to be out in the community…getting people into the pipeline and helping them get on the right job.

“We are looking at another big communication push next year in March just before we go into the heavy bidding season,” continued Kingston.

Racial equity with businesses wishing to do business with St. Paul “is our expectation, and we are going to hold you to the expectation, and we really want you to achieve it,” said Kingston. Companies using the excuse that they can’t find Blacks or other people of color to hire on construction projects “[is] not good enough anymore,” she pointed out.  “There is so much effort going on in the metro area, and even in this state to train and develop the upcoming workforce, and in particular people of color, that’s just not an excuse that works anymore.”

Kingston said that racial equity is achievable, and that St. Paul should lead in this effort. “We want to be the leaders in this area,” she noted. “If a company is coming and saying, ‘I don’t think I can achieve [the workforce goal],’ that’s not good enough. We’re really sitting down and having them come up with a plan if they want to continue to bid on these contracts and be awarded. I want us to be seen as the leader in having those conversations.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.