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Feature Story - May 2007
Workforce Solutions

Missouri DOT Joins Labor and Management
To Build Road Project's Diverse Craft Force

By E. Michael Powers

Missouri Dept. of Transportation is spending $2.5 million to develop 240 women and minority pre-apprentices for heavy-highway work.


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The Missouri Dept. of Transportation and a union-management group in St. Louis have embarked on a new effort set to bolster craft labor on the $535-million program to rebuild Interstate-64 in the city's downtown, and to ensure that the work force recruited and trained reflects local demographics.

MoDOT is spending about $2.5 million for the program, launched earlier this month. Participants say it is the first major diversity-related employment and training effort in the state. PRIDE of St. Louis Inc., the region's 35-year-old labor-management group, won the contract to run the program. It involves $1.5 million to train about 240 women and minority pre-apprentices for heavy-highway work, and likely for other trades. MoDOT also has committed another $1 million in placement incentives for contractors. Workers will join the projected 500-person I-64 labor force, which will reconstruct 10.5 miles of the Interstate over the next four years (ENR 12/4/06 p. 16).

"Every pre-apprentice trained will increase the work force, which is a complicated task that not one entity can solve alone," says Lester Woods, MoDOT's external civil rights administrator. "This contract focuses on not just training, but placement and retention to increase the success of individuals in the program."

MoDOT is offering the incentives to achieve diversity levels that can exceed federal standards of 14.7% for minorities and 6.9% for women. For the first 20% of the labor force comprised of women or minorities, a contractor will receive $3 per hour per worker. If the contractor exceeds 20% diversity, it will receive $10 per hour per worker for up to 5% of the work force.

"MoDOT is the first project owner to provide significant funding to grow a diverse work force for its project," says Jim LaMantia, PRIDE executive director. He credits the agency's "dedication and the commitment of the union building trades."

Planning Ahead Much planning went into developing the contract's request for proposals to ensure that the new effort exceeds previous pre-apprentice programs. Community, construction, labor and DOT representatives met for months to craft the RFP. "We spent a lot of time to ensure that we asked for something more comprehensive and collaborative," says Len Toenjes, president of the Associated General Contractors of St. Louis, who participated in the RFP development.

"In the past, we had various pre-apprenticeship programs, but, alone, they could not do it," says Sandra Marks, president of Marks and Associates, a St. Louis diversity program management firm. "Typically, they were social service programs [and] could not teach people how to do construction. If all you were trying to do was teach students how to get up on time and show up on time, they would not know how to work on heavy-highway jobs."

LaMantia says the new training program hopefully will improve the quality of new recruits. "This program gives us an opportunity through PRIDE to form partnerships with well respected organizations in the minority communities to bring in high quality candidates," he says. Local church groups are a key component of the community outreach effort. Initial interest from these organizations helped spur the program, created with the expectation of their support.

"We wrote the responsibilities of the churches and clergy in the RFP. We are sharing the responsibility with them," says Toenjes. "This is a different segment of the community than we've had before that was interested in the construction industry." He says church groups have great influence within the city's minority community, making them a logical source for recruitment and education support.

The pre-apprentice training was developed in conjunction with local unions. It focuses on three key components: good work habits and life skills, basics of industry standards and extensive safety training. The goal is to allow students to "compete successfully with people who have a better background," says Julia Tibbs, director of Operation EXCEL, a program of the Housing Authority of St. Louis County.

The housing authority was chosen to execute the training because of its past success with Youth Build, a program that prepares high school students for carpentry apprenticeships, says Tibbs. Training associated with the new program began March 7 and will last eight weeks. It will include six rounds of full classroom sessions. The I-64 project's size and four-year duration are ideal for successfully completing an apprenticeship and finding a contractor sponsor, participants say.

Operation EXCEL aims to keep people in apprenticeships. "If students run into problems on a job, we will work with them to make sure they have all the skills and knowledge they need to know to succeed," says Tibbs. "If work runs out on one job, it is our responsibility to find another contractor so that they keep moving forward with their training."

The pre-apprentice program also has a tracking component. The University of Missouri-St. Louis is building a data base to monitor long-term retention of graduates who work on the 1-64 project and others. The program is being run with the expectation that many students will choose other trades and will need further vocational and apprentice training, based on skill levels and inclination.

Program participants hope that seeds now being planted eventually will produce a bountiful harvest. They see the MoDOT-funded program as a key link to future recruits in the area's minority community. "We have an aging work force. Most of our new craft workers are going to be coming from non-traditional backgrounds such as minorities and women," says Toenjes. "We need to bring in as many workers as possible. This is an opportunity to do that."

Marks says past recruitment efforts in St. Louis minority communities have been acrimonious failures. "The contractors blamed the unions, the unions blamed the apprenticeship programs. The programs said that they recruit in high schools, but the minorities do not want to go into construction," she says.

Marks contends that "in an urban community like St. Louis, the idea of working with your hands outside was viewed as demeaning. To the African-American community, it was what we did back during slavery." She also attributes the disdain to a lack of education about the construction industry.

"The distaste for construction stems largely from parents not knowing how skilled workers really are," says Marks.

The consultant believes the MoDOT-funded program will help create a base of workers who can spread the word about the quality of industry jobs. "We are trying to make the community aware that when their kids enter an apprenticeship program, they are often making more money than their parents did at 18 years old," says Marks.

The program already is attracting wider attention. PRIDE is talking with contractors to obtain private funding to expand and sustain training, says LaMantia.

MoDOT is considering using the program as a template for other projects.

"We have another design-build project for the Paseo Bridge and I-29 coming up in Kansas City where we hope to use the same program," says Woods. LaMantia notes that the Illinois Dept. of Transportation also is planning to model a minority and women worker program on the one in neighboring Missouri.

"We see this as an historic opportunity to provide an educational foundation for disadvantaged jobseekers that they can leverage into rewarding construction careers," LaMantia says.






Workforce Solutions is a syndicated column brought to you by ENR. This article originally appeared in the March 26 edition of ENR.






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