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Infrastructure bills are kicking off billions in construction projects. Will workers of color get the jobs?

By Chris Burrell | Feb 08, 2022

On a recent winter Tuesday just off Boston’s Southeast Expressway, dozens of aspiring carpenters were banging nails, sawing wood and hoisting heavy steel rails to other apprentices at the local union training site.

One of them was Annisha Simpson, a 27-year-old from Boston. Simpson is Black and part of a growing number of minority construction workers in the state.

“It’s pretty cool to see people like me on the jobs. Having somebody that’s also of color is like, ‘Oh, I got my own little friend,’” she said during a break from a day of training by the North Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters.

Workers of color now make up almost a quarter of the state’s workforce in the building trades, their numbers climbing 30 percent from a decade ago, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But those trends aren’t clear in the state’s track record for hiring workers of color on public construction jobs. And with an infrastructure boom on the horizon fueled by federal funding, labor experts say the state has an opportunity to do better.

Despite a 2016 state mandate requiring all state agencies to track minority workers’ hours on construction projects, GBH News found only two agencies doing it consistently: the Division of Capital Asset Maintenance and Management and the University of Massachusetts Building Authority.

The minority hiring rates posted by contractors working for DCAMM are about 17 percent, far below the availability of workers of color. That still beats the state’s goal for hiring minority workers, which has remained 15.3 percent since 2016.

The Massachusetts Department of Transportation — which spends huge sums each year on major construction projects — creates no annual report of minority workers’ hours and could not provide a full record of them, despite months of requests from GBH News.

Documents obtained by GBH News on five recent projects run by MassDOT costing almost $90 million show that people of color worked only about 9 percent of the total hours — and far less than that on some large projects.

Other state agencies were also unable to produce workforce data requested by GBH News. The Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs provided nothing.

The Massachusetts School Building Authority said it tells local school districts to track workers’ construction hours, but the building authority never asks to see that data.

GBH News reached out to dozens of school districts that had recently completed construction projects. None responded with their workforce data.

MassDOT and other public agencies will play a huge role in spending more than $12 billion appropriated by Congress and headed to Massachusetts through the infrastructure and pandemic relief bills, going toward projects such as new roads and bridges, affordable housing and better ventilated schools. Gov. Charlie Baker said last week in Lowell that the state is already planning more than $9 billion in construction projects with funds from the federal infrastructure law approved last year, but the governor and his team said nothing about its impact on the state's workforce or the need to increase hiring of minority workers.

“The numbers here are lackluster, to put it lightly,” said state Sen. Sonia Chang-Díaz, head of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Racial Equity. “But I think that equally, if not of greater concern, is the lack of transparency. You've got five projects [from MassDOT] ... but we don’t know the rest of it.”

Policymakers such as Chang-Díaz emphasize that the construction jobs will pay strong middle-class wages, and they want to leverage those billions to help close the racial wealth gap in Massachusetts.

“If the workforce is there in the industry, we should not let ourselves off the hook with these lower numbers,” she added. “It is hard to overstate the importance of getting this right in our spending, making sure that we're using those federal recovery dollars, not just to build stuff that we all need as a state, but also that we're using it to build wealth and close the wealth divide.”

Annisha Simpson, the carpenter apprentice at the union training site in Dorchester, has excitement in her voice when she talks about her career, saying that four years in the building trades have put her on the path to the middle class.

“I never once had a savings account. Now I do. First year I was on the bus. Second year I got a car. Third year I got my own place, and it feels amazing to actually be able to take care of myself,” Simpson said. “I’m probably going to make 100K a year.”

High-paying construction careers are a magnet for women and people of color whose other job prospects are often in low-wage sectors like food service or driving an Uber, according to economists.

Labor experts said the coming infrastructure boom is an opportunity for unions, the construction industry and especially for governments to push for more diversity in the construction workforce.

“Governments have the ability to really push the needle forward in ensuring that people of color have more pathways into good construction careers,” said Hugh Baran, a labor rights attorney in New York.

Examples can be found at the University of Massachusetts Building Authority, whose big construction projects over the past five years hired minority workers for more than 26 percent of the work hours.

Likewise, for the recent construction of the casinos in Everett and Springfield, overseen by the Mass Gaming Commission, workers of color made up a quarter of the workforce.

Mark Erlich, a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program, said the only way to move the workforce needle is for state agencies to set ambitious goals and then hold their contractors accountable for making sure a larger percentage of minority workers get hired.

“In the absence of that kind of intentional policy efforts,” he said, “the industry will continue to evolve very slowly in terms of becoming more diverse.”

To keep an eye on the spending of federal funds, state legislators created a new 25-member equity and accountability review panel to monitor the $5.2 billion from the American Rescue Plan Act in December. The aim of the panel is to prioritize spending in underserved communities and to set goals for both contracting with minority-owned businesses and hiring minority workers on projects funded by the act.

One pipeline supplying minority construction workers to the region is Youth Build Boston, a nonprofit that teaches building skills to more than 150 young people a year and lines them up for jobs.

“Over 90 percent of our students are from Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan, looking for opportunities in the construction and design industry,” said Brian McPherson, Youth Build’s executive director.

Before McPherson took over Youth Build in 2020, he worked for the Division of Capital Asset Maintenance and Management, heading up its diversity efforts. He said there are still barriers to people of color all over the industry.

“People applying to these unions and to these positions are getting turned down. And [they] are very, very qualified,” said McPherson. “I hear that story over and over again in my community, and it’s disturbing.”

Organizers like Martin Sanchez at the Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters admit there’s a lot work to be done to diversify their ranks. He spends his days recruiting nonunion builders in their native languages, or the ones he can speak: English, Spanish and Portuguese.

“Most of them are bilingual immigrant guys that probably don’t have the right information. And I do that. I do that,” he said. “I talk to every language, every skin color.”

At a construction site on Post Office Square in Boston, electrician William Li, who is Asian, said the growing diversity in Boston’s political landscape should dictate a more diverse workforce.

“I see that there's more Asians. I see that there's more Blacks and Latinos [on construction sites],” he said after finishing a shift in December. “It goes back to the city of Boston or our City Hall. White people are the minority now in City Council. And we have Michelle Wu as our mayor. You got to get with the times.”

Data collection and analysis for this series was provided by computer science students at Boston University’s SPARK! program. Participating students were Lingyan Jiang, Murtadha Bahrani Al Bahrani, Carmen Sabrina Araujo, Elisa Cordeiro Lopes, Jennifer Jordahl, Richard Lee, Anqi Lin, Ayca Solmaz, Yagev Levi, Daniel Dash, Daniel Kool and Lily Kepner.

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"It’s going to be a game changer," Chang-Díaz said. "I know it's going to take time for the MCAD to fill the staffing shortages that they've been experiencing in recent years, but this is a huge step forward."

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