Starting in July, some construction funds on large projects will support disadvantaged workers

SUBMITTED: MULTNOMAH COUNTY - Laborer apprentice Gregory Roseboro addresses the Board of Commissioners at the March 15 meeting. Diversity and access to family-wage jobs is as critical as ever, especially in housing-crisis Portland.

To help build a more diverse workforce, the Multnomah County Board has approved a new fund to increase the supply of women and minorities entering the construction trades. It will fund small business development, providing technical assistance, mentoring, association sponsorships and other support to certified disadvantaged, minority and female-owned small businesses. It will also support worker retention, to increase the number of apprentices who continue onto journey-level work.

County commissioners unanimously voted to create the fund on March 15, to take effect July 1 — the start of the county's fiscal year.

"The construction field does provide family-wage jobs," County Chair Deborah Kafoury said before the vote. "Yet women and minorities have not always been welcomed into this work. These are great jobs — and everyone should have an opportunity to have one."

Commissioner Lori Stegmann co-sponsored the measure with Chair Kafoury.

"This effort is an upstream approach to increase economic prosperity in a more intentional and equitable manner," said Commissioner Stegmann. "It will have a long-lasting and stabilizing effect on our communities.''

The Construction Diversity and Equity Fund will draw 1 percent from County remodeling projects with budgets above $200,000 and new construction over $1 million.

William Mazzara Myers, an executive with the Columbia Pacific Building Trades Council, shared a key statistic at the board meeting: 32 percent of women and 33 percent of minorities continue past their apprenticeship to the journey level.

"That retention rate is not acceptable," he said. "We need to build an infrastructure to support these folks as they engage with their profession. This fund will support mentoring and technical assistance programs that focus on retention."

The new fund will support organizations like YouthBuilders, a Southeast Portland alternative school that provides pre-apprenticeship training to young people who often come from minority and low-income families with no connection to the trades.

"Highly skilled construction jobs are a ticket out of poverty," said Bill Kowalczyk, teacher of at-risk students at Portland YouthBuilders and a former carpenter. Kowalczyk said that traditionally, construction jobs are often filled through family connections, a system that doesn't work well for the worker who is first in her family to be part of the industry.

"I come from a family like that," Kowalczyk said. "The family and its cultural network provided me the cultural training to survive and thrive in the construction industry. But that system does not work well for everybody. This has been a difficult system to change ... Highly skilled construction jobs are a ticket out of poverty."

This latest effort is an expansion of equity work that the county has done for many years, including project labor agreements which have strong equity goals and opportunities for Certified disadvantaged, minority and women businesses and workforce.

Gregory Roseboro is a young African American laborer apprentice who graduated from the local Constructing Hope program and has already worked on projects including the Central Courthouse.

"It saved my life,'' Roseboro said. "I was headed in a direction that wasn't very positive. Today I make $20 an hour and I'm working on a $900 million project in Salem. I'm pleased with what I do and I'm pleased with what's in my life today."

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