UpSkilling America: How industry partnerships can improve our community

May 07, 2015

On Friday, Vice President Joe Biden, on behalf of President Barack Obama, kicked off a new initiative to UpSkill America, at the White House. I was fortunate enough to be invited to this event and share what is right about my town and industry, despite the negative press since August. Now is the time to take programs like the one I will soon describe to scale so that all Americans have opportunities to prosper.

The construction industry in the St. Louis region remains one of the most highly unionized economic sectors compared to other areas in the U.S. However, for the most part, history indicates that the skilled trades were not very open to nontraditionals (i.e., people of color and/or women). Only in the past two decades has the industry begun to change its ways in dealing with the serious issue of workforce inclusion/diversity. Some experts would suggest that this may be more of a reactive than proactive measure.

To this end, since 2000, construction buyers of several large-scale (public and quasi-public) projects included language in their contract documents that set hiring goals for “nontraditionals” — at the sub-contractor level — tied to a rewards system. Consequently, both construction management associations and construction unions have jointly developed and implemented numerous programs to provide access to these nontraditional groups. Unfortunately, after a number of failed pilot projects, the ranks of minority and women subcontractors remain nearly nonexistent.

In 2012, the Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District announced a 20-year, $1 billion-plus project and made it clear that nontraditionals would play a vital role in performing their work. Interestingly, this time, the union trades and its partners did not wait to react. They scanned the environment and realized that the Great Recession had changed the playing field since 2007.

Having a wealth of experience from the 2007-10 Interstate 64 highway project, the construction trade unions took an active role in assisting MSD with the development of their contract documents for work to begin in August 2014. Meanwhile, in January 2014, after years of recession, three programs and projects that served nontraditionals in the construction industry collapsed … now referred to as the “St. Louis tsunami.” As a result, this significant event left a huge void in the St. Louis construction industry’s attempt to become more inclusive.

Accordingly, Jeff Aboussie, executive director of the St. Louis Building and Construction Trades Council, gathered four labor leaders to discuss the need to be at the MSD table providing input to the contract document process versus taking a wait-and-see attitude.

By the end of January 2014, this project garnered much attention among construction owners, contractors, unions, and community- and faith-based organizations in the St. Louis region. In fact, a course section taught by Tim Keane within St. Louis University’s MBA program that spring took this project on as a live case study. Keane’s students have since named it BUD (Building Union Diversity) and offered a number of suggestions for moving the project ahead (i.e., best practices, possible partners, funding sources, etc.).

As a result, the BUD leaders have brought outside partners into the process (including but not limited to SLATE, St. Louis Community College and the NAACP). And they have taken the position that BUD must be about serving the needs of the region versus a specific construction project.

In closing, it would be remiss on my part not to consider the impact of culture on this situation. Peter Drucker is attributed with saying something along the lines of “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Like it or not, St. Louis is notorious for practicing a unique social sorting exercise based on where one went to high school. To this end, many of the newer union leaders went to nearby high schools and, therefore, have known one another for nearly 30-plus years. As a result, trust among those parties was built over that time. Consequently, these trusting relationships allow for taking calculated risks when creating innovative solutions to address the needs of the 21st century workforce in the St. Louis construction industry.

BUD has since been awarded two grants (totaling $450,000) and has commenced discussions with its related construction management and owner associations about future funding sources and needs. In addition, seven unions are now actively playing a part in the BUD project. Most importantly, the first BUD class graduated 75 percent of its enrollees and placed 89 percent of its graduates into bona fide registered apprenticeship programs.

One of those placed BUD grads is Corey Harris. Mr. Harris, a 32-year-old African-American male unemployed for nearly one year, is now an ironworker apprentice working on a 10-year project at the BJC hospital complex in St. Louis. He is just one measure of success in St. Louis’ attempt to UpSkill and diversify America’s workforce.

John Gaal is the director of training and workforce development at the Carpenters’ District Council of Greater St. Louis and Vicinity. He also serves as an adjunct professor of labor-management relations at Webster University and Eastern Illinois University.