Construction diversity: Leadership turnover slows compliance oversight

Photo by Jeff Achen

Pandemic and recruiting challenges also impede progress

Conclusion of a two-part story

This story continues MSR’s look at diversity in the construction industry begun in last week’s story “Construction diversity still a work in progress.”

Marvin Smith is president of the Association of Minority Contractors in the Upper Midwest. He’s been in the construction business for 13 years and is the owner and CEO of Bogard Construction. Smith believes that careers in the construction industry can help young people achieve financial stability and doesn’t have some of the barriers to entry that other industries might. 

“Construction is a pathway for many of our young men who’ve got challenges. Maybe they’re on probation or they’re on child support. Those people can still qualify to work on high-paying jobs if they’re willing to do the necessary training to be an apprentice or journeyman,” he said.

Related Story: Construction diversity is still a work in progress

Smith said that despite the opportunities being there, there doesn’t seem to be an active interest in filling these jobs. He recently held a job fair with members of his association. Eight contractors attended hoping to fill 15 positions. At the end of the day, not one application was filed. “Our young men and women for whatever reason aren’t showing up.”

Keia Isaacson had a similar experience years ago when she tried recruiting women for her business. “In the history of 12 years, I’ve probably only had four women apply. Of those four I’ve gotten zero to interview,” she said. 

Hiring more women on public construction projects has also been a focus for city and state officials when it comes to workforce inclusion. Though most local and state statutes list the goal for women’s participation to be 20% of the workforce, goals set by contract compliance officers are much lower due to the lack of women in the industry overall. 

Isaacson believes that the low representation of women in the workforce is due to how they’re treated in the male-dominated industry. She’s had her experience questioned when it came to working on flooring projects by some of the men she’s worked with. Nevertheless, she believes it’s a rewarding industry to join. 

“I don’t think they understand how much they make as installers even though it’s on-the-job postings,” she said. “I haven’t been able to wrap my head around it.”

Leadership turnover high

Recent reporting from the Pioneer Press has suggested that turnovers in St. Paul’s Department of Human Rights and Equal Economic Opportunity (HREEO) leadership have impacted the department’s ability to execute its responsibility in overseeing these public contracts. In just five years, HREEO has had five directors or interim directors. Currently, the department is being led by Interim Director Kristien Butler since the departure of Valerie Jensen in April. 

“Amid the many challenges of the pandemic, advancing justice and equity of our community remains as critical as ever,” said Interim Director Butler. “As our entire city continues rebuilding from the challenges of the past 20 months, we remain focused on supporting residents, workers and businesses.” 

The department has since partnered with St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter’s office to increase its budget and staffing. Additional funding is needed to further HREEO’s mission in increasing workforce inclusion on city projects. 

Brian Walsh is currently serving as the acting director of the contract compliance division in Minneapolis. He’s also the current director of the labor standards enforcement division. Walsh explains that this is due to a hiring freeze brought on by the pandemic. 

“The director of the contract compliance division was recently named Sean Skibbie, but he frankly got a new position at the Minnesota Department of Transportation,” Walsh said. Velma Corbel, the last director of the contract compliance division, left in the past year. 

“I can say the departure of Velma Corbel and certainly the pandemic probably more than anything has slowed down the process, but City processes have always moved slow.”

Dunne stated that despite there not being a director for the City of Minneapolis’s contract compliance division, he and his colleagues have gotten along fine in their work despite the backlog of construction data they have to enter.