Groups demand MnDOT hire more women, minorities

Reverend Paul Slack
The Reverend Paul Slack tells a crowd of about 200 supporters they will march across the street in St. Paul to MnDOT headquarters and present a report critical of the agencies efforts to recruit and hire women and minorities for highway and bridge construction jobs.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Women and minorities don't appear to be sharing in Minnesota's increased spending on roads and bridges.

In fact, the percent of women and minorities hired as employees by contractors doing business with the Minnesota Department of Transportation, MnDOT, is declining as the overall number of road and bridge construction workers has increased.

A coalition of religious and community groups critical of the slow pace of hiring marched to the state agency's headquarters in St. Paul Thursday.

The group of about 200 led by the Rev. Paul Slack, a Brooklyn Center church pastor, presented what they call a "missing persons report" asking the agency to explain why so few women and minorities are hired by contractors.

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The report was accepted by MnDOT's director of communications Kevin Gutknecht and is based on statistics gathered by the state agency.

Gutknecht told Slack and the others that companies do the hiring for the contracts they win from MnDOT.

The overall number of road and bridge workers in the past three years in Minnesota increased from 2,357 to 2,603, according to MnDOT statistics.

The number of women workers over the same period declined from 105 to 102. The percent decline is larger because of the increased base.

The number of minorities declined from 160 to 159, but again, because of an increasing base of workers the percent decline is from nearly 7 percent to just over 6 percent in the same period.

Ashanti Payne
Ashanti Payne, who works with the Minnesota Department of Transportation's on-the-job training program, says last year 70 women and minority entry-level workers found jobs but Payne says over a span of years less than a third of those placed continue on in construction trades.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

This at a time when the state's overall minority population grew to nearly 14 percent according to the U.S. Census.

A criticism raised by people advocating on behalf of women and minority workers is construction companies are white-male dominated and not friendly to other workers.

Dave Semerad doesn't agree.

Semerad, a former construction worker himself, is the executive director of the Associated General Contractors of Minnesota, the trade group for construction companies.

That situation is true in other parts of the country that work sites are hostile to women and minorities, but not, he says, in Minnesota.

Semerad said the companies seek the best workers they can find regardless of gender or race.

"There may be instances out there where there have been issues about performance, attendance, work ethic, but they are just as prevalent in the Caucasian group as they are in the minority group," Semerad said. "The contractor has to make the decision to assemble the best group possible on that job site."

The decline in the number of women and minority road and bridge construction workers in Minnesota the past three years is disappointing to Ashanti Payne. Payne is MnDoT's director of on-the-job training or OJT.

Hope Jensen
Hope Jensen, from the Minnesota Department of Transportation office of civil rights says unions are telling the agency they're focusing on hiring union members idled by the deep recession and Jensen says that may be slowing the hiring of women and minorities.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

OJT is one entry point for women or minority workers hoping to land a construction job. Last year, MnDOT brought 70 women and minority workers into the agency's OJT program. Sadly, Payne said, the retention rate over the past few years is low.

"Only about 30 percent make it through to journey person status, that's industry wide," he said.

With the arrival of stimulus dollars for MnDOT, one assumption is there will be an uptick in the number of women and minorities hired for road and bridge construction jobs in Minnesota.

Hope Jensen, who works in MnDOT's civil rights office, said they'll know if that's the case when they do their next survey later this month.

However, Jensen said what she's hearing is the economic slump is so deep contractors are still hiring from the ranks of out of work union members.

"We are being told that there are quite a few people, more than normal, on the union bench at this time," Jensen said. "And I think the [contractors'] effort is to get those folks sitting on the bench employed, which we recognize as also a need in the community, so I think it's a balance between the two."

The coalition of groups demanding more construction jobs for women and minorities have a meeting next week with Associated General Contractors of Minnesota to discuss their concerns.