Higher minority-hiring goal riles Minn. construction industry

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 27, 2012 - 10:07 PM

Governor's office says new workforce figures justify change.

The Dayton administration's goal of tripling minority work on some state construction projects is being decried by contractors who say they can hardly meet the current goals, never mind the new one.

Human Rights Commissioner Kevin Lindsey recently announced that as much as 32 percent of the work on state-funded projects in the Twin Cities should be done by minorities.

"We've been struggling to meet the current goal of 11 percent," said Tim Worke, transportation director for the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota, a large contractors group.

He accused Lindsey on Tuesday of listening to minority activists while turning a deaf ear to contractors.

"The process the commissioner followed stinks," Worke said.

Lindsey defended his decision.

"I don't think there was any ... favoritism given to one group over another," he said.

The higher goals were announced last week by Lindsey, an appointee of Gov. Mark Dayton. But a spokesperson for the governor indicated Tuesday that the decision might not be final.

"These goals were set by the Department of Human Rights -- we have received them and are currently reviewing them," said spokesperson Katharine Tinucci.

While the goal is not a requirement, contractors will have to show they have made good-faith efforts to meet it or risk punitive action, including fines. The goal will apply to state-funded projects in Hennepin and Ramsey counties, including construction at the University of Minnesota and elsewhere, beginning in April.

Meeting that goal will be "extremely difficult in the short term," said Nick Thompson, an assistant commissioner at the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT). Asked how long it would take to attain it, Thompson said, "We haven't even thought about that.

"These are goals set by Human Rights, not MnDOT," he added.

Besides the goal for work in Hennepin and Ramsey counties, the Human Rights Department set minority hiring goals of 22 percent for state-funded construction in Anoka, Dakota, Washington, Carver and Scott counties. It would replace the current goal of 11 percent.

Work on the Central Corridor light-rail project between Minneapolis and St. Paul provides an example of how difficult meeting the goals could be. The Central Corridor has been under construction for more than a year and is falling slightly short of its goal of 18 percent minority worker participation, a bar set by the Metropolitan Council, the agency overseeing the project.

Future Met Council construction such as the Southwest Corridor light-rail line will face a goal of 32 percent minority workers.

"These goals will present a challenge, but we're up to the challenge," said Susan Haigh, chair of the Metropolitan Council.

"These goals require us to expand and improve upon our already robust programs ... and we're prepared to do that because it is the right thing to do," she said.

Debate over skills

The Rev. Paul Slack, pastor of New Creation Church and a community activist on transportation issues, said he doubts that the 32 percent minority hiring target will be achieved soon.

But, Slack said, "there needs to be a higher goal than 11 percent. This state is becoming more and more diverse all the time."

Lindsey said raising the minority hiring goal is justified by new census data on the minority workforce that show that 32.4 percent of workers available for construction in Hennepin and Ramsey counties are minorities.

"The goals just simply reflect what is currently the reality," he said, adding that minorities accounted for 26 percent of workers building Target Field.

He said the state would try to be flexible in enforcing the goal, making exceptions if contractors show they can't meet it.

"There may be projects where there may only be very highly skilled, specialized work being done, for which there are not significant numbers of minorities," he said.

"In other positions, like painters, there really should not be any reason why the contractor couldn't meet the goal."

But Worke said the census data use broad definitions of occupations and job skills that might not relate to highway construction work. He said not all painters are equal.

"How in God's green Earth can someone who painted houses end up being considered a likely eligible skilled employee who can work on a bituminous paving crew on a highway?" he asked.

Similarly, Thompson said, meeting the goals on highway work is more difficult than in building construction.

"We've heard it's harder to attract and retain in highway work because it's not year-round [and includes] distant work sites," he said.

Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504

  • 11 PERCENT

    Amount of state-funded construction work the state says should be done by minorities.

    32 PERCENT

    Amount of that work that the state says should be done by minorities beginning April 4.

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