Federal law allowed states to spend as much as one half of one percent of the federal transportation dollars they receive for training minorities and low-income people for jobs in transportation.
In Minnesota, state officials say, that could total as much as $5 million a year. Recently the cap was lifted, and there's no longer a limit on how much from their federal revenue states can spend.
State officials say diverting federal transportation revenue for minority job training diverts funds needed for building state roads and bridges.
ISAIAH, an advocacy group whose members include 84 Minnesota religious organizations, wants MnDOT to commit to spending more money.
We have a gap, and an opportunity -- that if people had access to training they could get into these skilled labor jobs.ISAIAH volunteer Sara Mullins
ISAIAH volunteer Sara Mullins of St. Paul says training poor people to become heavy equipment operators, truck drivers, carpenters and cement finishers could help them break out of poverty.
"Under-employment and unemployment of so many persons in our communities is a pressing issue, at the same time that we actually have a lot of roads to build and maintain and a retiring workforce in that industry," says Mullins. "We have a gap, and an opportunity -- that if people had access to training they could get into these skilled labor jobs."
Minnesota unions and employers have increased the number of people of color hired for skilled construction work. However, traditionally, trades and crafts have been dominated by white workers, according to Louis King, president and CEO of Summit Academy OIC. The Minneapolis nonprofit trains young adults for construction work.
"These industries traditionally hired, and they handed it off. People knew the entry points, and other people didn't know the entry points and couldn't get access," says King. "Those people won't be around as much in the future, so it's unacceptable to let those (jobs) go unfilled, because we need them in order to keep the economy strong."
State projections show potential labor shortages in selected areas of Minnesota's workforce in the next decade. However at the moment, Dave Semerad says, there's no worker shortage. Semerad is president of the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota, the trade group representing state construction companies.
"The projects that have been let in the last couple of years, and in the foreseeable future, we do not foresee a problem in terms of qualified manpower," he says.
Semerad says that could change if big projects, including new sports stadiums and a major Mall of America expansion, occur.
MnDOT has its own program called ROADS, which trains minorities for work in transportation construction trades.
MnDOT's Mike Garza oversees the agency's compliance with affirmative action and civil rights programs. He's new to the job, and does not know how many people are in the program or have gone through it -- except to estimate that dozens of people have completed the training in the past few years.
The ISAIAH proposal, to have MnDOT set aside up to $5 million for training, would expand that to hundreds of people.
Garza says projects using federal transportation dollars require contractors to hire women and minorities for on-the-job training, or OJT, positions.
"I've seen contracts in the past that can have as many as six to 10 OJT goals that are assigned to them," he says.
ISAIAH says it will continue lobbying MnDOT to set aside money from federal dollars to expand its training of minority and low-income people.