Building trades open doors to minorities. Industry faces shortage of construction workers
New York — Hilton Smith has heard it all before from many students: ```We don't like construction work because it's dirty work. Your clothes get dirty, your hands get dirty, everything is dirty.''' Mr. Smith, director of equal employment opportunity and college recruitment at the Turner Corporation, laughs as he repeats the words. ``Then, when I say to the students, `Look and see what kinds of cars construction workers are driving, and look at what they are earning, $23 an hour and up,' the students get quiet real fast,'' he says.
As a member of one of the largest general contractors in the United States, Smith is quick to point out what he sees as the virtues of employment in construction. His message: The US construction industry, and women and minorities, need each other.
That same message, said 20 or 30 years years ago, might have been ignored. The industry was then widely faulted for excluding nonwhites and women, not to mention long-haired nonconformists or other young rebels.
Today, however, the environment in the industry has changed considerably. By passing nondiscriminatory hiring guidelines for federal contracts, Washington has prodded the construction industry to open its doors to minorities and women.
Many cities, such as Chicago, have adopted similar and, in some cases, tougher hiring re-quirements, labor experts say. Demographic changes, Smith says, are also altering the face of the industry.
Compared to the early 1980s, the industry looks fairly strong. In early 1983, according to Mary Lee Seifert, a supervisory economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the construction payroll work force plummeted to 3.7 million workers, from a previous peak of 4.5 million workers in January 1980. ``Since last August,'' she says, ``the work force has stood at over 5 million workers.''
But those numbers conceal what is happening on specific construction job sites around the country.
The industry, says Smith, is entering a period of crisis on the work front, with too few workers in some parts of the US, and overall, too few minorities and women. Indeed, by the year 2000, says Smith, the ``industry will need over 10,000 additional workers in just the Northeastern US alone.''
Yet, many young whites are increasingly attracted to service or professional jobs, rather than the arduous construction work their fathers might have undertaken. That means the industry will increasingly have to turn to minorities and immigrants to fill jobs, Smith says.
In 1987, blacks accounted for about 7.2 percent of the construction work force, and women made up about 8.9 percent, says Peter Cattan, an economist with the BLS. Those figures, he says, compare favorably with figures of past years. In 1983, for example, blacks made up 6.5 percent of the work force, and women made up 8.3 percent.
The biggest gain has been for Hispanics, who rose from 5.9 percent of the construction work force in 1983 to 7.2 percent in 1987. ``Of course,'' says Mr. Cattan, ``Hispanics have registered large percentage gains in all areas of work, as their numbers have grown within the overall US population.''
Still, many construction companies continue to experience difficulty in finding qualified non-whites. Take Turner's experience in Hartford, Conn.
Several years ago Turner Construction Company, a Turner subsidiary, couldn't meet its federal requirements pertaining to minority contractors. The result was that Turner spent $5,000 on a management seminar for some 50 minority owned and operated businesses. In putting the program together, Turner worked with the city of Hartford, as well as other businesses and industries.
Since 1979, Smith says, Turner has entered into or completed more than 4,000 contracts involving minorities and women as subcontractors or joint ventures. Last year alone, Turner held training programs for more than 600 minority contractors in seven large cities around the US. Since the program began in 1968, some 1,600 entrepreneurs have graduated.
``There is a special need for minorities to go into engineering,'' Smith says. He says he can understand why young blacks don't do so today. In his case, he says, he came from a black family where there were economic and professional ``choices.'' But for a black family where day-to-day financial and personal survival is paramount, pursuing the type of costly education necessary for engineering can seem hopelessly out of reach, he says.
Smith is a great believer in technical and vocational schools, where young people can be exposed to work-oriented fields such as construction. The key to success in contracting work, says Smith, is ``access to financing.'' Unless a contracting firm, whether minority-owned or not, can find sources of financing, it will not be able to win contracts on major building projects.
In any case, the industry needs workers, says Smith. And young blacks are increasingly asking the industry, ``to give us a chance; if nothing else, a chance to fail; but most of all, a chance to show that we are just as qualified on construction projects as anyone else.''