35W reconstruction makes workforce diversity a reality

Paige Elliott/MSR News

At least partly as a result of years of community protests and demands for racial equity in the construction industry, the current 35W Downtown-to-Crosstown freeway reconstruction project of the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MNDOT) is raising the bar for workforce participation by people of color. The improvement is garnering widespread praise.

“The workforce participation rates for this project look very different from past projects,” said Kim Collins, director of the Civil Rights Department at MNDOT. According to Collins, the agency went into the 35W project knowing that the freeway goes through diverse communities, including South Minneapolis, a historically African American neighborhood. This, among other reasons, is why there is a high priority to have more people of color involved in the freeway’s reconstruction.

Workforce goals regarding people of color are established on a county-by-county basis, with the goals determined in July 2017 by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights (MHDR). For Hennepin County, which is where the 35W reconstruction takes place, the goals are 20% women and 32% POC. Goals for the 35W project are 6.9% women and 32% POC. According to data supplied by the ALSJV, as of October 3, 2020, the workforce is 7.7% women and 28.79% POC.

“These numbers are not quotas,” Collins says. “They are aspirational goals,” a distinction she emphasizes is important for legal reasons. She also notes that these numbers are unusually high for a MNDOT public works project, a testament to the agency’s and the ALJV’s commitment to increasing diversity on state public works construction projects.

“Having 29% POC participation is atypical for MNDOT,” Collins said, “and contractors have been very strategic about recruiting.”

People of color are recruited for 35W job positions through MNDOT’s On-the-Job Training Program. This program’s primary goal is to “to offer equal opportunity for the training and upgrading of minorities, women, and disadvantaged persons toward journey-level status in the highway construction trades,” according to MNDOT.

To be eligible for the program, individuals must be people of color, women, or members of another disadvantaged group. Additionally, they may not be employed in any positions where they are considered a skilled journeyperson.

In an attempt to recruit more workers from communities of color for the project, the Joint Venture Partnership companies host start-up events that target community-based organizations in Minneapolis. The Joint Venture Partnership prime contractors, all based in Minnesota, include managing partner Ames Construction, Inc., Burnsville; Lunda Construction Co., Rosemount; and Shafer Contracting Co., Shafer.

This recruiting lasts throughout the duration of the project, and the events allow community-based organizations “to meet with MNDOT, labor unions, and contractors to create an open line of communication for the needs of this project,” according to Megan Holland, Regional EEO Officer at Ames.

Ames/ Lunda/ ShaferJoint Venture (ALSJV) members then commit to continue attending job fairs, mock interviews, and graduations in an effort to recruit POC for the project. The collective also hosts career fairs in South Minneapolis, such as at Sabathani Community Center, throughout the project to which it invites subcontractors, labor unions, community-based organizations and the community, said Holland.

One of the best aspects of the relationship between MNDOT and ALJV contractors has been the required biweekly meetings, says Collins, and it also provides accountability. Contractors are required to submit weekly payroll information to MNDOT in order for the agency to track demographic data of the 35W project’s workforce.

It is also part of MNDOT’s evaluative process for assessing contractors’ progress in maintaining healthy levels of workforce participation for people of color, with such assessments taking place in real-time. There are no punitive responses for not reaching goals, said Collins.

“Again, these are aspirational goals. We want contractors to demonstrate good-faith efforts, so being equal opportunity employers is more important than punishing contractors who are trying to recruit people of color.”

Accountability also comes in the form of monthly reports, which involves a group of stakeholders that includes MNDOT, the prime contractors and subcontractors, community members, and civil rights groups. This collaborative effort not only allows for MNDOT and the prime contractors to share progress; it also allows for transparency and all around good faith.

One stakeholder and source of accountability is the HIRE Minnesota campaign supported by The Alliance, a coalition of community-based organizations and advocacy groups advancing collaborative strategic campaigns to promote racial, economic and environmental justice, along with health equity. HIRE Minnesota began at the end of 2008 and eventually concentrated its efforts on creating equity in the construction industry.

 Maura Brown, associate director of The Alliance, explained that the relative success of equitable hiring for the 35W project is the result of many years of community protest and from strategies learned from other public works projects on which HIRE Minnesota had brought pressure, such as the Green Line and the Vikings Stadium projects.

The campaign has brought the field’s best practices and lessons to this project specifically as well as to MNDOT more broadly. HIRE Minnesota participates in MNDOT’s monthly public meetings for the project where workforce participation demographics are shared in real time. HIRE Minnesota volunteers review workforce data on a monthly basis from the contractors and overall data disaggregated by individual racial groups.

“Overall, it is agreed that the increased presence of people of color on this project is a step in the right direction,” said Collins. “And one of the positive results of this project is that it provides economic opportunity to the community it affects.”

The ALSJV, too, is pleased with the level of the diversity it’s achieved on this particular project, especially employee retention. “Retention is also a big factor to determine success, [and] we have hired and retained multiple individuals from this project,” Holland said.

Brown is also pleased with the numbers, especially regarding how much progress has been made in relation to past projects. “There remains much work to be done to ensure that the construction workforce reflects our communities, but the focused attention on 35W made it achieve our best results on a highway project to date in Minnesota,” she said.

Eric Hankin-Redmon welcomes reader responses to eredmon@spokesman-recorder.com.