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As Construction Employment Plummets, Some Hope Rehiring Will Reflect More Diversity


Construction companies are trying to attract new employees to address long-standing skilled labor shortages and a lack of diversity in the field even as they face the challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Associated General Contractors of America unveiled a program Wednesday called Culture of CARE (commit, attract, retain and empower) to make job sites more welcoming for employees from diverse demographic backgrounds. It also is conducting a public relations campaign to highlight the industry's good works in building projects like temporary hospitals.

"Firms are eager if not desperate to maintain the teams they've got," AGC spokesperson Brian Turmail said in an interview. "For all the wrong reasons, there is an incredibly robust labor pool. We've got more than 30 million people looking for a job in this country right now. If the construction industry could get on a recovery trajectory, we have a unique opportunity to bring in a lot of people in the industry who would not have considered careers in construction."

Diversity has long been a hot-button topic in cities like Philadelphia, where political leaders have complained about the lack of women and minorities at all levels of the construction industry.

Unfortunately, there isn't going to be much hiring for a while. The AGC estimates 975,000 construction jobs were lost in April, equaling 13% of the industry's total employment. The unemployment rate in construction now is 16.6%. A year earlier, it was 4.7%, according to the AGC.

Diversity in construction has been a politically charged issue in Philadelphia, especially given the building boom in the city in recent years spurred by the life sciences sector. 

A 2019 Philadelphia Tribune analysis of census data found that about 7% of the region's construction firms were minority-owned.  

"Based on government figures, you were three times more likely to find a minority-owned construction company in Denver or Oklahoma City," the newspaper said. 

Indeed, according to Blane Stoddart, the CEO of construction management firm BFW LLC, there were probably 10 general contractors owned by African Americans in Philadelphia in 1980. Today there are two. 

"In 40 years, the ecosystem has gone backward," he said. "What we are trying to do is build out an ecosystem that will allow minority businesses to thrive and to work with majority businesses in more collaborative ways so a rising tide can lift all boats." 

Of the nearly two dozen construction unions in Philadelphia, only one, Local 322 of the Laborers Union, has significant numbers of black and Latino members, Stoddart said. 

"I believe that the trades could do more to include minorities," he said. "It just has not happened." 

Philadelphia builders and unions such as Carpenters' Union Local 158 have stepped up their outreach to women and minorities in recent years.

The numbers of women and minority members in the Carpenters' Union has been on the rise in recent years, according to Joe Lockley, a union official. 

"A lot of the inner-city men and women didn't know how to get into the union," he said. "We started hitting as many schools and fairs as we could to get the word out."

The city's General Building Contractors Association is "adamant about building workforce training pipelines in our local communities that are tied to strong career prospects at the end of these programs," CEO Ben Connors said in a statement. 

"Any program that seeks to foster inclusive growth should provide career prospects and not simply a job. Far too often, programs that provide only a job and not a clear career path are celebrated, failing to recognize we may be forfeiting the long term gain a career would provide."