Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Who’s Building Milwaukee?

Not minority workers, it seems. New study shows non-whites not very welcome in construction trades.

By - Aug 20th, 2013 10:29 am

Where will Milwaukee’s future workers come from? Local business leaders have worried about this problem for many years, and the obvious answer is suggested by census statistics, which show that 44 percent of the population under age 25 in the four-county metro area is minority — mostly black and Latino.

If this is the workforce of the future, we are doing a poor job of reaching out to them within the construction trades, as a new study by the UW-Milwaukee Employment & Training Institute has found. In 2011, the study found, African Americans held less than 4 percent of the jobs in the largest construction firms (those employing 100 or more workers) in metro Milwaukee. Of 5,815 people employed, 228 were African Americans, including just 85 skilled craftsmen (compared to 2,771 whites), only 35 apprentices and semi-skilled operatives (compared to 441 whites), and only 73 laborers (compared to 431 whites).

Latinos fared about the same, accounting for just 255 workers or slightly more than 4 percent of those employed in construction trades. Latinos were also slightly more likely to be employed as skilled craftsmen than black workers.

Minority women made up just 1 percent of the employees in the largest firms, with most working as office and clerical staff.  And not one of the executives or senior managers running the largest construction firms in metro Milwaukee were minority.

“There’s been so much discussion of welding and who’s being trained for these jobs, and meanwhile here’s a whole industry that’s been ignored,” says the study’s author, ETI researcher Lois Quinn.

Randy Crump, who runs Prism Technical, a management consulting company whose services include helping companies meet diversity goals, has observed the problem for many years. “We have (minority) students from the area that have studied construction and related engineering courses who don’t consider the construction industry because they don’t have any connection to it,” he says. While some local companies offer internships, “most go to children of folks who currently work at the firm,” he notes. “So, when students graduate from architectural, environmental, construction, structural or mechanical engineering courses they look for work in manufacturing or somewhere outside of Milwaukee.”

Crump, however, believes some progress has been made. “We’ve had some talks with leadership in the major construction and engineering firms and they recognize the issue as well.”

Crump suggested the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District create a program of “externships” that would serve companies that contract with MMSD. The organization recruits, screens and provides some training of college students who are then eligible to become interns with companies who contract with MMSD. “MMSD will then host a breakfast forum and invite our contractors and ask them to consider taking on an intern,” says Peter Coffaro, the procurement and business development manager for MMSD.

RISE participants.

RISE participants.

With Crump’s help, the program, called RISE, or Regional Internships in Science and Engineering, has had success recruiting female and minority students. Now in its fifth year, RISE has placed 35 students in internships, including 15 in just the last year. “We’ve been able to increase the number each year,” Coffaro says, as companies increasingly find the program of value.

The program provides a model for increasing diversity in the construction industry for positions requiring a college education, but what about the lower end of the industry, where apprenticeships and semi-skilled positions might provide an entry into the construction industry for minority applicants lacking a four-year degree?

At first glance, the numbers here don’t look so bad. In 2011, about 66 of 507 semi-skilled workers (including apprentices), or 13 percent of the total, were minorities, the ETI study shows. But when you consider that minorities make up 37 percent of metro area residents aged 20 to 24, the prime age for apprentices, that 13 percent figure looks anemic.

Moreover, the total number of apprentices, says Quinn, is in decline: “In every industry within the construction field, the number of apprentices is way down.”

Under an executive order issued by Gov. Jim Doyle in 2005, all construction firms receiving state contracts were required to provide apprenticeship training, but Gov. Scott Walker rescinded the order shortly after taking office, in March 2011.

“It’s an industry in recovery,” Quinn notes, which would help explain the decline in apprenticeships, “but part of it is surely ending the state requirement.”

Quinn calls apprenticeships “the perfect model for a training program,” connecting technical schools, unions and businesses. The apprentices typically work in union-organized businesses and simultaneously take technical college courses. “And the skills are transportable,” she adds. “When you have an apprenticeship, employers know exactly what skills you have.”

A previous study of African American employment within the construction industry by ETI found little change, on a percentage basis, going back to 1980, even as the number of black residents and workers in the metro area increased dramatically. Experts have pointed to many causes: residual racism in unions and businesses; a pattern of family members and friends who are white getting the inside track on apprenticeships and entry-level positions; a lack of basic skills and/or a valid driver’s license and a car for some minority candidates; and high school guidance counselors who push four-year colleges even for students who would fare better with technical training.

But some companies have proven diversity is achievable. Under the leadership of Ned Bechtold, the longtime CEP of Payne & Dolan and its “sister company” Zenith Tech, the companies have had an impressive record of hiring minorities as apprentices. In 2013, 25 percent of the apprentices at Payne & Dolan and 38 percent of those at Zenith Tech are minorities, its reports to the state show.

Bechtold reportedly worked with black churches in Milwaukee to recruit apprentices. When he received an honorary degree from UWM in 2010, his work to diversify Payne & Dolan was cited. Bechtold is now chairman emeritus of the company, but the companies he ran continue to emphasize diversity.

The state oversees the apprenticeship program, and John Dipko, communications director for the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, notes that the Walker Administration has created a Governor’s Task Force on Minority Unemployment, with a particular emphasis on Milwaukee. “We are working with partners from business, government and community groups to remove barriers and promote long-term employment of minorities in all sectors, including in the construction industry, which was particularly hard hit during the deep, national recession,” he notes. That includes efforts “to encourage participation by minorities in construction trade apprenticeships,” he adds.

Those efforts so far haven’t accomplished much. Indeed, the picture is even worse — much worse — among the 95 largest construction firms in the balance of the state, when it comes to minority employment. Among 18, 350 male employees, just 1 percent are black, 2 percent Latino, and 1 percent Native American, Quinn found. About 96 percent of the 1,738 women employees were also white. In Milwaukee and state-wide, it’s a very white industry.

Categories: Murphy's Law

17 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Who’s Building Milwaukee?”

  1. Bruce Thompson says:

    It is a lot easier for outsiders to break in when there is robust hiring, but Wisconsin’s construction industry has a long way to go before it recovers from the Great Recession. For some reason it is recovering far more slowly in Wisconsin than in the average state.

  2. Robert Bauman says:

    Yes the recession has hurt the construction industry. However, the governor’s rejection of $810M in federal funds to extend Chicago to Milwaukee Amtrak service to Madison as part of the Midwest High Speed Rail initiative does not help. That project would have created several thousand of construction jobs. The city’s streetcar project which the governor and republican legislature is trying to kill would also help. This project would create several hundred construction jobs using $54M in federal funds that have sat idle since 1991.

    In addition the city is very mindful of the under representation of minorities in the construction trades which is why we have the Resident Preference Program, among other initiatives, which requires that certain levels of city residents must be employed on construction projects that receive city financial assistance such as the recently completed Moderne building. In addition several programs focused on rebuilding and renovating foreclosed homes have employed large percentages of minority employees although these contractors are often small businesses. These contractors and workers have done excellent work. Go see the restored home at 1227 N. 28th Street as an example. This house was vacant for years. Now it is owner occupied and back on the tax rolls.

    Unfortunately the city’s resources are limited. The largest impact would be at the state level where the state DOT spends billions on highway reconstruction and expansion. Many of these projects are in Milwaukee’s central city yet very few city residents can find work on these projects.

  3. dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    Baumann is such a hoot. He is against almost anything that they want to do in Milwaukee for some nutty reason and so everyone goes to Waukesha. Except for WA and Tosa there will be little done in Milwaukee cty anymore. I talk to businesses all the time in Wisconsin through my Conservative Digest and only the idiots go to Milwaukee cause of the Mayor and aldermen.
    Go to San Antonio to see what growth look like.
    If we got any growth in Miwaukee we could easily make our job goals, but nothing has happened in Milwaukee since Norquist left.
    Look at the businesses that located in New Berlin that were a little interested in Milwaukee.
    If it weren’t for the fact that our basic people are so talented we would be Detroit. as long as we have nutcases like Baumann and worthless, nice guys like Barrett running things they will continue to deteriorate. Course Bumann and Barrett always blame every one else.
    My word to you is that if you cannot solve any problems yourself, go on the County board, only place that’s dummer.

  4. dtydty says:

    In response to Mr. Baumann’s comment about transportation projects, my understanding is that Payne & Dolan & Zenith Tech, which are cited in the article as being leaders in minority apprenticeships, are both major highway contractors. I’m pretty certain both were involved in the Marquette and Mitchell Interchange projects.

  5. Stacy Moss says:

    An alternative explanation is that construction workers are holding on to their jobs longer. In fact, this has been a problem for insurance companies because older workers have a lot more problems than younger. So workplaces are safer but more expensive.

    Construction used to more of a young person’s profession. Not today for obvious reasons.

    So it might be a mistake to make to much of the race thing, it may take a little more time for our growing minority population to fairly represented in the profession.

  6. Bruce Thompson says:

    But the question remains: why is the recovery in construction jobs so much weaker than in other states? While I agree that accepting the high-speed grant would have helped, most states did not grants.

  7. Dan Stefanich says:

    Cheers for Ned Bechtold. He worked with the Boys & Girls Clubs as well as churches and other agencies to recruit job candidates. He had Club minority staff talk with his management and supervisory workers to help them better understand the issues minority workers face. With lack of adequate transportation often being a hindrance for minority workers, he also made sure those he hired had driver’s licenses and private transportation to get to the job site. If they did not, he worked out ways they could get their license and a vehicle. And he made sure the new workers had mentoring and the support they needed to succeed on the job. With the will to increase the diversity of the workforce, there certainly are ways to do it. Ned Bechtold’s story shows it is not that difficult to do if you decide to do it.

  8. Dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    Cheers for Ned. Putting billions into that high speed rail while cutting routes for buses is el stupido and would not have created any jobs or got anyone to work. First you get jobs by controlling spending and stupidity in Cty. and city govt. Then when jobs start to appear then push good bus system. Not elstupido rail that goes in little circles.

  9. Mike Bark says:

    It’s odd that Construction is being singled out here. Why?

    It appears that the contributors at Urban Milwaukee are pretty much exclusively white. The young creatives that we love to praise are essentially all white. So why is this just an issue with construction.

  10. Paul Trotter says:

    How ironic and sad that only 1% or less of the black population are getting a piece of the DOT road construction pie and the construction taking place will further isolate them from good paying jobs.

  11. Tom D says:

    I’m always struck by how conservatives (like Dohnal in post number 8) become such supporters of bus transit (but only when a rail project is mentioned).

    When County Executive Scott Walker cut MCTS bus routes year after year, Dohnal and his friends never called Walker’s bus cuts “el stupido”.

  12. dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    running for the state legislature in 1972 and 1970 I strongly endorsed county take over of bankrupt system. Walker had no choice the Lefties in Milwaukee stole all the money for their pensions. If i remember they were elected by the good Lefties in Milwaukee, Ament and the whole gang. Walker inherited the mess and fixed it just as he inherited the mess in state govt. caused by you clowns.

  13. Bruce Murphy says:

    Bob, Just a factual point: there was no disagreement between liberals and conservatives as to passing the county pension plan. Similarly, Tommy Thompson and many Republicans supported the state law that delivered pension sweeteners to longtime state employees like Tommy. (Rep. Scott Walker, however, did not vote for the bill.) As a general rule politicians of all ideologies supported pension hikes because they also benefitted from them.

  14. Dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    There wasn’t any disagreementon pension plan for Milwaukee cty cause there wasn’t any reporting of what it was. That boob editor in the Journal that pulled out all the reporters from county. Luckily some great Irish kid came along and exposed it. Thank God for the Irish, they kept me alive in battles when I was kid so I married one, had five kids, all part Irish.

  15. Bruce Murphy says:

    Gee Bob, you assume to be saying the conservative board members needed the newspaper to explain what was in the pension plan they approved. I’m guessing you don’t really mean our legislators can’t decide on the right policy without being told by the media. But hey, thanks for the tip o’ the hat.

  16. dohnal(Wis. Conservtive Digest says:

    I am not sure what Conservative board members there were at that time but they also need good kick in butt.

  17. I watched a number of construction projects in Washington, D.C. when I lived there and I was forcibly struck that the union cement finishers were almost exclusively African-American, whereas in Milwaukee it is rare to find nonwhite cement finishers. There is no significant difference in the job of laying and finishing paved surfaces between Washington and Milwaukee (except our sidewalks must be thicker due to the weather).

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