Table of Experts: Diversity in Construction

Five industry professionals recently sat down with the St. Louis Business Journal to discuss diversity in the construction industry. Hear what Howard Hayes, PARIC's Vice President of Diversity and Inclusion, had to say at the Table of Experts:

How does community outreach tie into your company's overall recruitment strategy for minority workers?

Howard Hayes: Addressing these issues of our future workforce requires a holistic approach and how we recruit people is an important part of the equation. We are supporting several programs which range from the high school level to people looking for a second chance.  It is important for everyone to understand that there are a lot of different types of opportunities in our industry. These opportunities not only pay well, but they provide people with a long-term career path. For us at PARIC, it’s important that we take every opportunity to invest in the people living in our region. We recognize the need to support our community along with our partners and other agencies to invest in a strong, capable workforce that’s good for future of the construction industry and good for the future of our region.

As there is a shortage of workers in the construction industry, are you aware of anything new the region is doing to reach young people, ages 15-25, especially in under-served communities?

Howard Hayes: We have a lot of positive things going on in the region. The Clark-Fox Family Foundation is addressing some of this with technology. They have a free web platform for 17-25-year-olds that provides information about construction careers and other areas. What’s key is the partnership of about 25 organizations – one of them being the Youth Employment Coalition – all putting their best resources behind it. All of us are finding it hard to find city residents and women, and it’s important for people to know construction can be a great living if it’s offered to those who have traditionally been left out by unions and other entities.

There is a growing trend focused on creating better awareness for the opportunities and advantages of a career in the skilled trades. PARIC is working with the school systems, as well as partnering with other local organizations, to make more people aware of employment opportunities and to get trained. We have to create an understanding regardless of where you are from that there are high paying careers in the construction industry that don’t require a college degree. We have to change the mindset that these are not just jobs, these are career opportunities.

The bottom line is that construction jobs can support families with real wages.

What are the challenges we are facing?

Howard Hayes: There is an impending shortage of workers because baby boomers, once the backbone of the industry, are retiring. We have North and South County technical schools doing outstanding jobs, and multiple programs with SLATE, MOKAN, and others, but it’s not enough. We have to get to the kids early to show what a construction profession can do for them. I have met many construction workers who started in the trades and now own their own businesses, so it is a foundation that can lead to ownership.

We want to maximize the potential that exists in our community, so we’re trying non-traditional ways to grow the workforce. We know some neighborhoods in north St. Louis are victims of violent crime, but we found a study performed in a challenging Philadelphia neighborhood which showed you can significantly reduce crime and crime rates if you maintain the vacant lots and buildings in these troubled areas. With that in mind, we adopted about 100 vacant lots in the Walnut Park neighborhood this summer, and we’re going to put resources in Walbridge School and other anchor institutions in that area. We have job fairs in those neighborhoods because we believe it is possible for us to find or grow potential workers in these parts of our community. We just need to create opportunities to identify and support them.

What are some of the major challenges that you've encountered while trying to improve diversity in the construction industry?

Howard Hayes: We found that our best tool for growing WMBE firms is to listen to them. We ask if they have any needs or concerns to please sit down and talk to us.

Do we have an issue with the definition or perception of diversity?

Howard Hayes: It’s a work in progress, but we have to address this issue. When businesses are interested in coming here, they want to know everyone is working together. We have to recognize that a diverse employment base is important to attracting outside businesses. Investment from outside of the region is what will accelerate the growth in our region.

What is the most vital threat to our industry if we continue with the lack of diversity?

Howard Hayes: Diversity works. If you think of PARIC’s project at Ballpark Village, we will share millions of dollars with minority and women-owned companies and we will achieve our goals, but what will be on display there is master craftsmanship by MWBE contractors. Work from minority and small businesses that is world class. When you think about all the myths about minority and women-owned business not performing well, it’s simply just not true. Ballpark Village is proof.

How do we start conversations about organizations in the region designed to grow the capability of MWBE construction firms?

Howard Hayes: You begin with shared goals and objectives and then also sharing of resources. There is and should be a healthy competition between construction firms, but I see more collaboration on programs to solve problems like online reporting systems we all use. It’s fair to say that construction firms have resources so if we can grow some of the neighborhoods and advocacy groups and step in where they might not have all the funds, we can build strong partnerships. It all starts with having goals and objectives to get things done.

I was recently named board president for the Regional Union Construction Center (RUCC), an incubator designed to grow the capacity and capability of minority and women-owned construction firms. Advisory boards work closely with them. What’s new is that we have a junior RUCC with some very successful firms that are part of the core to help those struggling minority construction firms that need a leg up like when they haven’t reached full capacity but are on the radar.

What recent initiatives have you taken to increase diversity at your organization?

Howard Hayes: PARIC was one of the founding members of the Contractors Loan Fund of $10 million. It would not be in place without these organizations and funding from MSD. That brought national attention to the St. Louis region.

What workforce development programs have you found are the most successful in equipping candidates to enter skilled careers in your industry?

Howard Hayes: Both North and South County technical schools, BUD, SLATE, MOKAN pre-apprenticeship program, and of course the Carpenters and Laborers union training centers; all do a great job, but there are still worker shortages and it is going to take the whole region to manage this growing challenge.

From each of your perspectives, what do the next three to five years look like in terms of construction projects at your organization?

Howard Hayes: As a top five construction firm in the region, we continue to experience solid growth that is consistent with trends for our region.  We see investments being made in both the city and county which are positive signs for continued growth. There are a few larger opportunities that will continue to drive growth and additional investments.

View the full article in the St. Louis Business Journal.