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Will New Effort To Diversify Construction Industry Be A Success?

BJC Healthcare is in middle of a large construction project employing a lot of workers.
file photo | Provided by BJC HealthCare

In his 35 years as president of the St. Louis chapter of the Coalition for Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), Lew Moye has seen a lot of initiatives to increase diversity in construction.

There have been agreements to include minorities in specific projects, such as building the Edward Jones Dome and expanding Interstate 64.

And there have been protests demanding greater minority representation, such as the 1999 shutdown of I-70, where Reverend Al Sharpton led minority contractors in a call for more state highway jobs.

But according to Moye, the projects and protests have failed to bring significant numbers of African Americans into St. Louis construction unions—often called the building trades.

“We have seen some cooperation at certain projects at different times between contractors and the building trades, but in the end when you look at the numbers, they are low,” Moye explained.

A disparity study commissioned by the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District in 2011 supports Moye’s statement. It shows that construction workers in St. Louis and St. Louis County are disproportionately white and overwhelmingly male.

Because Moye has seen so many initiatives try and fail to increase diversity in the past, he is hesitant to believe the hype surrounding the newest such initiative—the BUD program.

“Anything that the BUD program would do to increase minorities and women in the trades, we’ll support it wholeheartedly,” Moye said. “But there’s been all kinds of efforts in the past, there’s been all kinds of initiatives to increase African Americans in the trades over the last 50 years, and it just hasn’t happened.”

Vic Sunshine of the Associated General Contractors teaches the inaugural class of BUD participants about OSHA safety standards.
Credit Camille Phillips/St. Louis Public Radio
Vic Sunshine of the Associated General Contractors teaches the inaugural class of BUD participants about OSHA safety standards.

BUD stands for Building Union Diversity, and it is an eight-week pre-apprenticeship program taught by instructors from seven St. Louis unions.  The inaugural class is currently underway.

Pre-apprenticeship programs have been in St. Louis for years, but participants have struggled to get accepted into the union’s apprenticeship programs.

But BUD will be different, said Jeff Aboussie of the Building and Construction Trades Council of St. Louis.

“Not to downplay any of the past pre-apprentice programs, but they’re not people from our industry, and they’re going to have to come to us eventually anyway if they’re going to get indentured into any of our apprenticeship programs,” Aboussie said, adding that because the union instructors are part of the industry, they know what skills and knowledge pre-apprentices need to be accepted by the unions.

To help match participants with the construction trade they are best suited for, the unions are each taking one week to introduce pre-apprentices to their trade. By the time BUD is over, they will have a basic understanding of what it takes to be a brick layer, a carpenter, an electrical worker, an iron worker, a laborer, an operating engineer and a plumber.

Aboussie admitted that unions have done a poor job recruiting minorities in the past, but said they have committed to improving their outreach.

“We know we have to do better. And we need to make these jobs that are going on in these neighborhoods look like the people who live in these neighborhoods,” Aboussie said.

If they make it through the program, BUD participants will be invited to interview for acceptance into one of the union’s apprenticeship programs. The unions plan to hold four sessions of BUD within the next year, for a total of 60 participants.

But with the small participant size and no guarantee of employment, MOKAN Executive Director Yaphett El-Amin is skeptical of the ability of BUD to truly diversify the unions.

Yaphet El-Amin, executive director of MOKAN.
Credit courtesy photo
Yaphett El-Amin, executive director of MOKAN.

“If the BUD program is structured … to be a pipeline to employment, then kudos to the BUD program,” El-Amin said. “But we are not going to wait, and sit idly by hoping that it works, and hoping that people who have traditionally not done the best job of being inclusive, are being inclusive.”

Plans are in the works for MOKAN to open its own, non-union, apprenticeship program in January. As an organization that supports minority and women-owned contractors, MOKAN has a pool of potential employers for their future apprentices. But MOKAN apprentices may not be able to find employment with the two biggest construction projects of the decade.

Major projects underway for the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District and BJC HealthCare have helped drive the creation of the MOKAN and BUD programs because they are increasing the number of construction jobs available. But executives with BJC and MSD say their companies usually hire union contractors.

“Health care work is a highly specialized type of construction. And so what we’ve learned is that the unions have done a very good job over time preparing their workforce,” explained BJC HealthCare Group President Bob Cannon.

MSD Executive Director Brian Hoelscher echoed Cannon, saying that MSD trusts union training and that "well over 99 percent" of their work gets done by union contractors, "although on occasion we do have non-union workers,” Hoelscher said.

But despite that potential setback for MOKAN, there are some positive signs that African Americans and women may soon begin to make greater inroads into the St. Louis construction industry.

Both BJC and MSD have committed to diversifying their construction workforce; BJC by appointing a diversity consultant and posting a dashboard of their minority work hours, and MSD by signing a Community Benefit Agreement to make 30 percent of their construction workforce minorities. MOKAN and CBTU are both signatories on the agreement.

The city of St. Louis and St. Louis County also have minority hiring requirements for public projects now. St. Louis has had requirements in place since 2009, but the effects weren’t fully felt right away due to a recession-related construction slowdown. In 2012, the city’s requirements expanded to include projects funded with TIF (Tax Increment Financing).  This past June, County Executive Charlie Dooley signed an executive order establishing diversity goals for St. Louis County.  However, methods of enforcing the order are unclear at this time.

These steps give Moye and El-Amin hope that their doubts about the BUD program will prove unfounded, and that this time there will be real change in the St. Louis construction industry.

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.