Building a diverse pipeline for the trades

Pre-apprentice programs that prepare minorities to enter the building trades are critical to diversifying the construction workforce, a national expert said Wednesday at an event hosted by Investigative Post.

Buffalo needs a “big pot of money” for apprenticeship programs bolstered by community groups that work together to promote diversity in the construction trades, said John Goldstein, a national expert in workforce diversity in construction.

“That seems like one critical piece that might be missing,” said John Goldstein, a national expert in workforce diversity. That money could come from contractors, foundations or be included in project labor agreements, he said.

Download Goldstein’s Powerpoint presentation

Buffalo’s construction boom has been raising questions about who benefits and who gets left out.

The local construction unions have long struggled to recruit a more diverse workforce, in part because of a profound disconnect between the unions and community groups. People of color make up around 18 percent of the county’s workforce, but only 11 percent of union members – and that’s hardly increased over the past decade.

Goldstein, who has extensive experience forging partnerships between communities and labor unions, was the guest speaker Wednesday for the event, part of Investigative Post’s “At Issue” series, at the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site in Buffalo, which was attended by around 60 people.

The evening began with a presentation from Investigative Post reporter Charlotte Keith, who recapped her reporting on the subject, including the lowering of a diversity hiring goal on the $750 million solar panel factory under construction at Riverbend and the city’s failure to enforce its own hiring standards for public works projects.

View Charlotte Keith’s presentation

Goldstein laid out five key steps Buffalo could follow that have proved successful in using major construction projects to spread economic opportunity in Milwaukee, Oakland, the Bronx and Los Angeles:

  • Organize supporters.
  • Create a demand for local workers.
  • Develop a successful pipeline of workers.
  • Address barriers workers face for employment.
  • Monitor and enforce the standards aimed at diversifying the construction unions.

The process starts, Goldstein said, with creating a strong coalition of community groups, construction unions, contractors, and elected leaders.

Once a strong coalition is in place, Goldstein said there needs to be a demand for local workers.

“Creating the demand means creating policies, standards, goals, a general community standard that this is going to happen,” he said.

Goldstein outlined how other cities have introduced hiring standards to give priority to local residents on publicly funded projects.

Goldstein spoke to an audience of about 60 at Wednesday’s event hosted by Investigative Post. Photo: Joed Viera.

 

That standard should carve out targeted populations – if not by race, then by focusing on high-poverty ZIP codes – and include goals to give a certain proportion of work to those groups.

Those standards can then become conditions that contractors have to agree to if they receive public subsidies.

“When there is public money involved, even if it is a private project and a private contractor or private developer, you want to create a sense that it is a good way to do business and it’s not an onerous thing that’s forced on businesses.”

Goldstein added that the rules need to be clear and achievable for unions and contractors.

“You want to establish standards that actually work,” he said.

The next step is creating a pipeline to get people into the unions – often by setting up a pre-apprentice program.

The most successful programs, Goldstein said, are those closely connected to both the trades and community groups “because they are the ones who will bring people into the pipeline.”

“You want a program that’s going to help people be ready and qualified for an apprenticeship program into the trades,” he said.

Funding for these programs can come from contractors, unions and private foundations or be included in the project agreements. For example, Goldstein said federal transportation projects permit 1 percent of the total funding to be used for readiness to work programs.

Establishing goals and finding workers to help meet those goals go hand in hand. “Otherwise, you will have a great standard but you won’t have the pipeline to make it work,” he said.

Goldstein cautioned that one of the main reasons these programs fail is if someone finishes a pre-apprentice programs but does not get a job. People who are involved in pre-apprentice programs often have no income or a side job while they finish the training.

“I’ve been part of efforts where that happened and it is very hard to get a program like that going again when there was a not job at the end of the pre-apprenticeship,” he said.

And developing this pipeline requires helping people overcome barriers to employment like a lack of transportation or a driver’s license, or passing a drug test.

“Some of these barriers are harder to deal with than others, but we can deal with them all,” Goldstein said.

Another critical component to success is monitoring and enforcement to ensure standards are met.

“So, you’ve got the 25 percent goal and the project is underway,” Goldstein said. “OK, so how are we doing? And there is a big silence in the room. Well, who do we ask? And there’s another big silence. You go ask the state and there’s another big silence.”

Developing a monitoring and enforcement component needs to be done at the beginning of the process. This can be done through an independent compliance officer or a community compliance board that provides oversight.

When standards are not met, the consequences have to be serious enough that contractors are motivated to comply.

“There has to be built in some consequences and they can be escalating consequences,” he said.

Finally, “you really need a champion that leads this work.

“You need someone who is engaged enough and cares enough to say just because this is a barrier it isn’t ‘no’,” Goldstein said. “We have to figure out how we get to yes.”

The workshop was part of “At Issue,” an event series hosted by Investigative Post, and sponsored by Bernhardi Law Offices; the M&T Charitable Foundation; Talking Leaves Books; R&P Oakhill Development; NOCO Energy; WGRZ; and The Public.