Diversity sought in economic-stimulus construction jobs

A group of 50 advocacy organizations has asked President Barack Obama to issue an executive order that encourages the hiring and training of minorities, women and low-income residents to work on federal construction projects, particularly those funded by the economic stimulus package.

“There is concern that without active steps to promote these goals, too few of these construction jobs will reach” these groups, according to a proposal written by the National Employment Law Project and the Partnership for Working Families.

The proposal is modeled on state and local programs around the country that require contractors on federally funded projects to hire and place some disadvantaged and underrepresented workers in apprentice training programs.

McClatchy first reported last month that minorities and women might miss out on jobs on large construction projects funded by the stimulus package because of regulations that could steer most of the work to unionized labor.

An executive order that Obama signed in February “encourage(s) executive agencies to consider requiring the use of project labor agreements” on federal construction projects of $25 million or more. PLAs are collective bargaining agreements with labor unions that set the terms and conditions of employment on large construction projects.

Unless the PLAs set goals for including underrepresented groups, however, jobs and training opportunities for minorities and women could be hard to come by, because white men dominate the membership of skilled construction-trade unions. Regulations to implement Obama’s executive order on PLAs will be announced in May.

The new proposal, which is backed by groups such as the Center for Community Change, the Center for Law and Social Policy and the National Women’s Law Center, among others, calls for a presidential order that would require federal agencies to issue guidelines “encouraging states and cities to use targeted hiring and apprenticeship utilization requirements on all federally funded construction projects.”

It also calls for the U.S. Department of Labor to fund “comprehensive pre-apprenticeship training to support such initiatives and to investigate options for helping more small, minority and women-owned businesses participate in the apprenticeship training system.”

For many years, women and minorities trying to join construction unions faced discrimination, ethnic and family nepotism and little access to union apprenticeship programs. While things have improved, many experts say that more needs to be done to diversify the industry.

The economic stimulus package offers a rare opportunity to do so while providing jobs to people who need them most, said Laura Barrett, the national policy director for the Transportation Equity Network, which advocates for disadvantaged groups in transportation planning.

“The stimulus money comes from all taxpayers in all communities, and the jobs that people receive need to reflect that,” Barrett said. “This is an unprecedented opportunity to try to lift people up and get them into a good-paying, livable-wage construction job that’s going to be a career for them.”

The proposed executive order was sent to Martha Coven, the special assistant to the president at the Domestic Policy Council.

The White House had no immediate comment.

Copyright 2009 McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.