A recent Star Tribune article (“Men (mostly white) at work,” March 30) might leave the casual reader believing nothing much has changed in the construction industry. In generations past, construction workers were typecast as non-thinking, catcalling white males who worked hard and played even harder. That narrative does not stand up today — yet, as industry leaders, we acknowledge that much work remains and many challenges must be overcome before those commonly held stereotypes wane.
Today’s construction careers require much more than a strong back and a willingness to work long hours in sometimes harsh conditions. Construction workers today are highly skilled, well-educated, experienced craftspeople. The oft-stated convention that “anyone with a strong back can find work in construction” is simply not true.
While the business end of a shovel or broom still comes into play, technological mastery and specialized, refined skills are now an absolute necessity on construction jobsites. Sadly, our public education institutions have abandoned the very programs that once fed the construction workforce pipeline, and education leaders have systematically devalued careers in the construction trades in favor of four-year college degrees. Restoring these secondary school programs and re-establishing the value proposition of a construction career will be essential in overcoming our workforce obstacles.
Challenges in solving the growing workforce puzzle are neither unique to the construction industry nor solvable by government agencies or industries alone. Tomorrow’s workforce challenges are borne of population numbers and demographics poised to impact every market sector. Competition for talent is on the doorstep and the article framed this reality well for the construction sector.
What was missing, however, was an exploration of how the industry is changing in recognition of these facts. Workforce diversity success stories have filled the pages of this paper in stories citing high profile projects like U.S. Bank Stadium, Target Field, Metro Transit Green Line LRT, and the state Capitol renovation, projects that met or exceeded established workforce hiring goals and contributed to the skill development and diversification of the next generation of construction’s workforce.
While these project-based successes deserve celebrating, the larger goals of recruiting, training, and retaining women and minorities in construction careers remain elusive.
The industry is working hard to meet these challenges and develop its future workforce. Successful programs like Construct Tomorrow focus on introducing young people to the world of construction and connecting them with resources to set them on a path that can lead to careers in the construction trades. To date, Construct Tomorrow has touched more than 40,000 young people, averaging about 10,000 personalized contacts per year.
Our region lacks a comprehensive strategy that encourages all stakeholders to share best practices, resources, etc., while working collectively to leverage the talents of the next generation of workers regardless of race or gender. As leaders in Minnesota’s construction industry, we are working to pull these ideas together and develop a new model for recruitment, training, and retention that will serve the region well into the future.
Building this new strategy is not easy work. It will take time and commitment. We recognize there is an immediate deficiency and an urgency to better diversifying today’s construction workforce. Those efforts cannot be sustained, however, and will have limited success if our focus is job-oriented rather than career-oriented, and if the effort is skewed solely toward publicly funded work, where goals and performance mandates dominate, as opposed to a holistic statewide, industry-driven approach.
The construction industry and construction employers are committed to eradicating racism and sexism from the workforce and jobsites. Unfortunately, the narrative and allegations presented in the recent article imply the industry is somehow complicit in allowing these attitudes to go unchecked. Let us be clear on this point: sexist and racist behavior is not tolerated in the construction industry — period. While stubbornly held personal beliefs that embrace such attitudes remain, the industry is working hard to change the culture and has a zero-tolerance policy toward these behaviors.
Attracting tomorrow’s workforce into the construction field demands tolerance and acceptance of a diverse talent pool and presents a contrast to how the industry has long been perceived. We believe much progress has been made on these challenges and they deserve a more thorough discussion, providing a more balanced assessment of the construction industry for your readers.
Tim Worke is CEO, Associated General Contractors of Minnesota. Harry Melander is president, Minnesota State Building and Construction Trades Council.