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Construction industry push for diversity a good start, but more resources needed

By Clark Peña, director of advocacy, Construction Workforce Project

A recently announced diversity initiative by the Associated General Contractors of America is an encouraging step forward. However, open shop workers in New York City need much more support from our elected officials in order to achieve real gains for men and women of color in our industry.

As this becomes a hotter topic for construction industry stakeholders, politicians need to pay more attention to how policies are impacting these workers and why additional training and workforce development resources are needed to continue advancing the ball.

CLARK PENA

The AGC’s announcement is encouraging for multiple reasons: First, it represents the sort of recognition that the open shop deserves. Over the past several years, open shop projects have undergone a period of rapid expansion that has resulted in innumerable economic benefits for New York City and its residents.

By legitimizing the vital function that this workforce plays, voices of support such as the AGC directly contribute to the advancement of new job opportunities for minority workers while also raising the profile of this critical issue for community leaders and elected officials.

However, this announcement doesn’t amount to a ‘victory’ for the open shop workforce just yet. While commitment from the private sector is indispensable, what is truly needed is for the public sector in New York City to demonstrate this same level of commitment. Merit-based hiring’s greatest room for growth will come in the form of increased access to public projects.

As new developments continue to spring up in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, the jobs these projects create should go to local residents. And by overwhelmingly employing workers from local communities, the open shop helps achieve this goal.

Overall, the scale and impact of the open shop workforce tends to be underestimated. Not only do these workers already represent approximately 70 percent of the city’s private construction workforce, the vast majority of them are locally based and of racially diverse backgrounds. For example, three out of five open shop workers are either Hispanic or African American and live in Manhattan or one of its surrounding boroughs.

As a result, greater investment in the expansion of the open shop could have an enormous impact on New York City’s economic well-being. But in order for that to happen, more support is needed— particularly as it pertains to public projects.

Currently, workers can find it challenging to enter this labor pool because many of the training programs for construction jobs are far too expensive for them to afford.  The public sector can alleviate this burden by adopting more training support programs, which ensure truly great job opportunities for locally based workers of color.

Here at The Construction Workforce Project our mission is to secure these opportunities and provide a voice for these historically underrepresented workers so that they have increased access to affordable training programs and living wages. We aim to do that by better educating the general public and elected officials about the benefits of our work.

Ultimately, the AGC’s commitment to a diversity initiative is an important development and a step in the right direction. However, to ensure more workers in New York can access the benefits of the open shop, the public sector needs to promote its expansion and secure more opportunities for local workers.

Clark Peña is Director of Advocacy for the Construction Workforce Project, a nonprofit advocating on behalf of open-shop and merit-based hiring in New York City’s construction industry.

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