MnDOT adjusts hiring goal for women and minority contractors

Protesters stage a mock funeral
Protesters holding mock headstones protest the "missing persons", women and minority workers, they allege MnDOT has failed to hire the past 17 years. The group says it has won a meeting with MnDOT commissioner Tom Sorel to improve the agency's performance.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Again this year, construction companies awarded contracts for state road and bridge projects have fallen short of goals for hiring women and minority subcontractors.

Minnesota Department of Transportation officials say the hiring goal is too high and has been scaled back for next year. In addition, MnDOT is revamping its efforts to encourage contractors to hire individual women and minority construction workers.

The changes reflect MnDot's struggles on two employment fronts. For nearly the entire decade, companies awarded MNDOT contracts have fallen short, sometimes far short, of meeting hiring goals for women and minority subcontractors.

Bernie Arseneau, director of the agency's policy, safety and strategic initiatives division, said it's clear that contractors will not attain MnDOT's goal of just over 15 percent of the dollars for various road and bridge contracts going to women and minority owned companies.

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"We kind of got forced into a goal that I believe was not really representative of the availability of minority contractors to bid on highway heavy projects," Arseneau said.

A MnDOT consultant several years ago concluded contractors can attain the 15 percent goal since there are nearly 400 certified women and minority-owned construction companies.

"We kind of got forced into a goal that I believe was not really representative of the availability of minority contractors."

Arseneau said MnDOT's goal for next year is 9 percent.

"That's a nice goal for us to set right and it's more realistic and I think it will help us move in the right direction," he said.

The other challenge facing the agency is helping individual women and minority construction workers find jobs with contractors. Every year for the past several years, the number of women and minority construction workers has stayed the same or declined.

MnDOT is still calculating the numbers for this year.

Arseneau said the recession is partly to blame for the lack of hiring progress by contractors.

Ranks of unemployed veteran construction workers are at the head of the line at their union halls. They're being called back instead of less experienced, entry-level workers, which typically include women and minorities.

However, even before the recession, hiring results have been meager for years. That has brought a chorus of protests from community and advocacy groups.

MnDOT started meetings to brainstorm ideas for improving the hiring record.

Arseneau said when it became clear earlier this year the effort wasn't working the agency changed plans. "So we stepped back and said we wanted to bring in a third party facilitator," he said.

MnDoT has hired St. Paul consultant Barbara Raye who, beginning this month. restarts the agency's strategy to place women and minority construction workers.

Arseneau said the groups at the table include the state's largest contractors, unions, training programs and community advocacy groups including HIRE.

Louis King is one of the founders of HIRE and he is also the executive director of Summit Academy, a Minneapolis construction worker training program. King lays responsibility for the lack of hiring progress with MnDOT.

"In no other arena could you fail so miserably and never have any consequences," King said. "And I think that, until we get appropriate leadership in place, we're not going to see any real change."

King and his supporters have led several protests, including one last week, to MnDOT's St. Paul headquarters.

They requested and have been granted a meeting on Monday with Tom Sorel, MnDOT's commissioner, to talk about their concerns.