COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | TOM LEMMON

Construction careers for San Diego’s work force

For three out of four unemployed looking for work, there simply are no jobs. The unemployment rate for veterans is much higher than the already unacceptable national average. Some of those who are currently unemployed find it harder than the average person to find work, like our young veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. In the American spirit, if you work hard enough, you can do or be anything. However, veterans, women and minorities often do not get the opportunity. More often than not, for them, there are no second chances, or sometimes even first chances.

One of the reasons I believe in the construction industry is that it provides pathways to middle-class careers for everyone, no matter what your background. One tool the construction industry often uses to do this is called a community workforce agreement. CWAs are project labor agreements, or agreements between a construction client and a consortium of unions, which contain goals to put local residents, veterans, women and minorities to work on taxpayer-funded projects.

This month, Cornell University’s Institute for Labor Relations released an important study that shows that unions and community organizations have a track record of bringing disadvantaged individuals into construction careers. Cornell researchers examined more than 185 PLAs nationally. Their research found that PLAs and CWAs serve as important tools to promote career opportunities for groups. Without these agreements, these groups often face dangerous worksite conditions, wage and benefits violations, and unstable work opportunities.

Cornell found that:

  • 100 out of the 185 PLAs have incorporated various types of community work force goals. These range from hiring local workers to increasing opportunities for veterans, people of color and women.
  • 139 PLAs included “Hardhats to Helmets” requirements to promote the entry of veterans into the construction industry.
  • 103 PLAs contained goals to hire women and minorities.
  • 45 PLAs included provisions for employment and career opportunities for economically disadvantaged populations.
  • Such goals have increased in recent years. Agreements after 2004 tended to have more community work force provisions than those prior to this date.
Cornell also examined three case studies throughout the country.

In Cleveland, the CWA/PLA was a large private-sector project to expand the Cleveland University Hospital. At more than $500 million in value, this project created 5,200 jobs. It made sure these jobs reached all residents, particularly those most in need, by creating an innovative partnership with a local vocational high school to prepare young graduates to enter the trades. Labor leaders, hospital management and city representatives also held monthly meetings to make sure that they met community goals.

New York City’s PLA covers $6 billion of public construction projects across city agencies, creating approximately 30,000 jobs. This citywide PLA covers everything from schools to police stations to libraries. To ensure minorities and women participated in this project, the PLA linked to pre-apprenticeship programs, which provide disadvantaged individuals with skills to access unionized apprenticeship programs.

The Cornell study is groundbreaking in showing elected leaders how working together across sectors in business, community and labor can make sure that the construction industry continues to provide good career opportunities for all people, regardless of where they come from. It shows that when done right, construction projects can create strong, long-lasting structures, and also stable middle-class careers.

Right here in San Diego, this national data backs up the results we’re seeing. Community work force provisions in the San Diego Unified School District PLA have created good local jobs for many San Diegans. Our latest progress report shows that more than a third of workers on all PLA sites (34 percent) come from targeted ZIP codes, and 42 percent come from SDUSD ZIP codes. Ninety-nine percent of all workers come from San Diego County.

In these tough economic times, I believe that if we’re spending public dollars, it’s important to bring the most benefit back to the public. Why not use these dollars to create hardhats jobs for local residents and give veterans, minorities and women more chances to have middle-class careers?

Download the full Cornell report at: http://www.ilr.cornell.edu/news/upload/PLA-REPORT-10-6-2011_FINAL.pdf

Lemmon is the business manager of the San Diego County Building and Construction Trades Council AFL-CIO.

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