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Solomon Jones: People of all races deserve city-funded construction jobs

IN FISCAL YEAR 2015, nearly 70 percent of city-funded construction projects with budgets over $250,000 did not reach the city's minority participation goals, and 44 percent had no minority participation at all.

IN FISCAL YEAR 2015, nearly 70 percent of city-funded construction projects with budgets over $250,000 did not reach the city's minority workforce participation goals, and 44 percent had no minority workforce at all.

Those are the findings of the Economic Opportunity Plan Employment Composition Analysis by Econsult Solutions and Milligan and Company, LLC.

The report, which examined minority and female inclusion on over 360 city-funded construction projects, found more than 160 of the construction projects included no women or people of color on the workforce.

I don't know what that means to you, but, to me, it means our taxes are funding the systematic exclusion of qualified minorities from city-funded construction in Philadelphia.

I wanted to know whether the city had an explanation for why so many city-funded construction jobs included no minority participation at all, so I left several messages with the Office of Economic Opportunity. That's the city agency that oversees minority inclusion on city-funded construction projects.

The OEO did not repsond for comment. Mayor Kenney's spokeswoman, Lauren Hitt, said the administration is not responsible for Fiscal Year 2015, but is committed to improving diversity on city-funded projects.

But perhaps more troubling is this: The exclusion of women and people of color on city-funded construction projects is not an accident. In fact, it's made possible by city rules that mandate the use of union labor.

In a 2015 executive order by Mayor Nutter, under which Kenney is now operating, government agencies are instructed to negotiate Project Labor Agreements on city-funded construction projects with "appropriate labor organization(s) . . . representing, for the purpose of collective bargaining, journeymen in one or more crafts or trades with Federal or state certified approved apprenticeship training programs."

That means unions.

But mandating union labor tends to leave out skilled minority workers such as electricians, carpenters and heavy-equipment operators, and the data bear that out.

The report found that while 41 percent of skilled minority workers were available to work on city-funded projects in FY 2015, only 22 percent were utilized.

I asked the study's author, Lee Huang of Econsult, why that was the case.

"The skilled work is unionized work," Huang told me. "You have people who have the skills to do the work," but they are not able to obtain the jobs, because they aren't in the unions.

But while membership in the 30 unions that comprise the skilled trades has consistently eluded women and people of color, it hasn't been a problem for white men.

In fact, when Econsult looked at the work hours performed by skilled workers on city-funded projects in FY 2015, they found that 73 percent went to white males.

That number illustrates what critics have long stated - that the overwhelming majority of highly paid construction workers in the unionized skilled trades are white men.

That number also illustrates the fruitless nature of the years long back and forth about creating training programs and apprenticeship opportunities in the building trades unions. If after decades of talk, three out of four people in the skilled trades are white men, the plans, negotiations and goals have not worked.

The data strongly indicate that blacks, women, Latinos and Asians are still largely excluded from skilled labor unions. All the talk in the world won't change that truth.

There is good news, however. Despite the fact that women and people of color get relatively few of the city-funded construction jobs in the skilled trades, the report found that they got 38.6 percent of workforce hours overall.

Seems impressive, considering that the city's goal for minority participation is 32 percent.

But a closer look at the data shows that only three firms accounted for the bulk of the workforce hours logged by women and people of color in 2015. And even on the three projects completed by Northstar Contracting Group, JPC Group Inc., and Delta/BJDS, 97 percent of minority work hours went to laborers - the traditionally black and brown members of the building trades who are also the lowest paid.

That's not good enough. Women and people of color must get a proportionate percentage of construction dollars. Those who are qualified to work in the skilled trades must not be left sitting on the sideline. Goals and promises are no longer acceptable.

The tax dollars that pay for city-funded construction jobs come from Philadelphians of all stripes.

We should all have access to those jobs.

Solomon Jones is the author of 10 books. Listen to him mornings from 7 to 10 on WURD (900-AM).