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With Rebuild, Kenney aims to remake workforce as well as rec centers

At surface level, Mayor Kenney's soon-to-launch Rebuild initiative is about tackling the concrete problems pervasive in Philadelphia's neighborhoods. Libraries with leaky roofs. Parks with rusted-out swing sets. Recreation centers with few programs and fewer resources.

At surface level, Mayor Kenney's soon-to-launch Rebuild initiative is about tackling the concrete problems pervasive in Philadelphia's neighborhoods.

Libraries with leaky roofs. Parks with rusted-out swing sets. Recreation centers with few programs and fewer resources.

But the project is also about attacking a less visible, but still corrosive, problem - the historical under-representation of minorities and women on construction sites.

City officials say that increasing minority participation and creating sustainable jobs are a central, not secondary, goal. In a city where previous pledges have shown little payoff, the promises have been met with skepticism.

Officials say there will be a key difference this time. The city is willing to pay more, they say, for diversity - a radical idea in an industry based on the lowest bidder.

"Our goal is not to do cheap capital projects. Our goal is to diversify the building industry," Nicole Westerman, the program's executive director, said this month. "If there's a premium, OK. We're going to pay that premium."

Officials see an opportunity to lay a foundation and make gains over time, ramping up to 40 percent minority and female involvement in Rebuild, an enterprise which could take more than six years to complete.

The $500 million project - boosted recently by a $100 million grant from the William Penn Foundation - calls for investments at parks, rec centers, and libraries that have fallen into disrepair.

Rebuild staff say businesses interested in participating should plan now to increase diversity.

"To be part of Rebuild, you really have to have the mind-set," said Mary Stitt, Rebuild's deputy director for workforce and inclusion. "And it might be a culture change for them."

There is much room for improvement, in Philadelphia and nationally.

Last year the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported just 6 percent of the U.S. construction industry is black, 1.8 percent is Asian, and 28.5 percent is Hispanic or Latino. About 10 percent of workers are women.

Unions aren't required to release demographics on members, but a 2012 review by Axis Philly of some city-funded projects found the workforce was 99 percent male and 76 percent white.

It comes as little surprise then that some on City Council are approaching Rebuild with skepticism.

At a hearing last month, Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. told administration officials that diversity will be key if Council is to approve $300 million in bonds to fund the project.

"Rebuild won't pass," Jones said, as some of his colleagues nodded. "I'm all on board with parks, libraries, rec centers in my district, but if the guys and ladies in the barbershops and beauty salons do not get invited to the party, there will be no party."

With that concern in mind, the Rebuild team plans to address the underlying issues contributing to the lack of diversity.

To start, the city plans to hire outside its low-bid procurement process, instead partnering with nonprofits to do the contracting. That could allow the city the flexibility to select a newer, minority-owned business for a job rather than an established firm bidding at a lower price.

There are other barriers, such as a lack of up-front capital, that could keep minority- and women-owned businesses from even bidding on Rebuild jobs.

For that, the city said it has partnered with institutions that provide small-business loans. Rebuild funds could fill gaps or create a loan-loss reserve program to give more security to potential lenders.

The city is also focused on building interest among groups where interest in the construction industry is low. Stitt said highlighting success stories of minorities and women in the field will be key. She joked about getting a poster of Jennifer Beals in her starring role as a welder in the 1983 hit Flashdance. "She hits the target we're looking for," Stitt said. "A woman of color. And one of the challenges is women, because they see it as dirty, cold. It's not pretty. I'm going to go back to my friends and say I'm a welder? Well, yeah, because I'm making money."

Those skeptical of the impact of Rebuild point to the historical roadblocks to entering union apprenticeship programs. Some require applicants to be sponsored by a person associated with the union.

Officials have said a pre-apprenticeship program being launched as part of Rebuild will not have such restrictions and will recruit largely from neighborhoods with low employment. The program will be a partnership between the city and the trades, which will teach technical skills.

It is unclear if that program will feed into the union's existing apprenticeship programs. The city is negotiating its Memorandum of Understanding agreement with the Philadelphia Building and Construction Trades Council, a kind of master agreement between the two for Rebuild, but officials have been hesitant to talk in great detail.

Westerman noted that the trades will have a clear investment in workers they have helped train in the pre-apprenticeship program.

John Dougherty, the trades council's business manager, in a statement said he is working closely with the Kenney administration and pointed to a program he launched under the Street administration that he said was similar and successful.

"We got more than 1,000 young people involved - mostly kids of color - and it included a pre-apprentice program with a strong educational component," Dougherty said. "The majority of those kids who completed the program are still employed with building-trades unions."

To some who have watched previous diversity efforts fail, the Kenney administration's plan sounds promising.

Still, many stress it will mean little if the city does not stand by its diversity goals and hold companies accountable.

"For the people hardened by this over the years, the problem is these lofty claims have fallen apart when the builder or the sources of professional services contracts have simply not cooperated," said A. Bruce Crawley, founder of Philadelphia's African-American Chamber of Commerce.

The city's Rebuild team has agreed accountability is key. Without giving specifics, it has said that any agreement with the building trades will include terms for enforcement and that job sites will be monitored to make sure reporting is accurate.

Members of the Rebuild team are quick to say one initiative alone cannot solve a problem that has persisted for decades. But Brian Abernathy, the city's first deputy managing director, said Rebuild can be viewed as a pilot.

"Rebuild is not going to be the silver bullet to diversifying the job trades," Abernathy said. "But if we can create a system that works, . . . then we can sustain it for other city construction jobs."