Let's use construction boom to help boost workforce diversity
It should not come as a surprise that Oregon's economy is growing rapidly. As our state has pulled out of the Great Recession over the past decade, we have added more than 300,000 jobs and grown our Gross Domestic Product by 50 percent.
However, if we peel back the veneer of prosperity, it's clear that not all Oregonians have felt the benefits of growth. Income inequality in Oregon is at a record high, with median incomes stagnant since the 1980s.
Women and people of color, in particular, have been left out of this economic expansion. Women in Oregon are typically paid 18.5% less than men and while median household income is $60,212, median incomes are significantly lower when a household is Hispanic or Latino ($50,117), American Indian or Alaska Native ($45,003) or African American ($37,009).
At the same time our region experiences unprecedented economic disparity, we face another challenge that is less often talked about but has significant impact on our local economy: a serious labor shortage in the construction industry.
In the next two years, public agencies in and around Portland will break ground on more than 80 capital projects, and it's estimated that we will need close to 14,000 construction workers in the next five years to keep up with demand for labor on these projects alone. And despite relatively high wages, the construction labor pool is shrinking — for every five construction workers nearing retirement, only three under 24 years old are entering the workforce.
Here is the good news: the region's public agencies have an outstanding opportunity to expand access to construction careers by recruiting and supporting women and people of color in the industry.
The Construction Career Pathways Framework provides a roadmap for public agencies to work with labor unions, workforce development organizations and contractors to remove barriers and improve training job site culture to help make construction careers open to all.
Along with Metro, 15 public agencies developed a shared set of tools to identify workforce diversity goals, increase recruitment and retention of workers and track outcomes.
We're doing this because we recognize that racial discrimination has led to economic inequality in the region. Metro is working collaboratively to cultivate opportunities for people of color and create lasting cultural change.
Across our region, billions in public works projects are on the drawing board — projects like building new libraries, replacing century-old schools, shoring up seismically vulnerable bridges and building affordable housing for more than 12,000 people.
Meanwhile, construction is one of the few industries that can provide a family-sustaining career without a college degree, offering wages averaging $25 per hour and full benefits.
However, women and people of color face significant barriers to entering and succeeding in the industry.
Once women and people of color enter the industry, hostile workplace cultures and a lack of on-the-job support make it difficult for them to succeed. A study of Oregon job sites showed that nearly half of all women in apprenticeship programs reported harassment at the workplace and significant numbers of both men and women of color experienced racial discrimination. It's no surprise that women make up just 4% of the region's construction workforce and people of color represent just 20%.
While we're breaking new ground at the regional level, the individual strategies being employed are nothing new. Across the country, when local governments support women and people of color in the construction industry, they see positive results.
All of this work means that local contractors and talent can be hired onto more projects, helping public agencies invest in the economy and avoiding higher costs due to labor shortages.
In October, the public agencies that contributed to the development of Construction Careers Pathways began formally adopting the policy and committing to building a more inclusive construction workforce. As more partners sign on, the potential for progress grows. By opening up access to construction careers for all, we are laying the foundation for a regional economy that is more resilient and more equitable for the long run.
Juan Carlos González and Sam Chase are elected members of the Metro Council. González represents Metro Council District 4, encompassing northern and western urban Washington County. Chase represents Metro Council District 5, encompassing much of North and Northeast Portland.
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