An organization that represents thousands of construction firms is launching a national campaign it says is aimed at diversifying its largely white and male workforce.
The Associated General Contractors of America plans to announce Monday at City Hall a push to bring more vocational training to high school students in the hopes it will attract more minorities and women into the construction trades — though critics say it could cause poor and minority kids to opt out of going to college.
“It’s time to be honest about the construction industry here in New York and around the country — It’s disproportionately white and dominated by men,” said the group’s CEO Stephen Sandherr.
“We’re launching a nationwide effort to make the industry more diverse and inclusive and seize every possible opportunity to grow our industry to look like the modern American workforce.”
According to the AGC, the reason why proportionally so few minority- and women-owned businesses get construction contracts is because there are far fewer minorities and women in construction fields in general.
By expanding vocational education in high schools and establishing mentorship programs in colleges, the group hopes to “develop a pipeline to expand the diversity of the industry.”
Their push comes as contractors are struggling to find skilled workers — 80% of employers say they have trouble finding qualified people, according to a recent AGC survey.
“There needs to be a change of focus on the high school level,” said Mike Elmendorf, president of the AGC’s New York State chapter. “There’s an institutional resistance to this in our high school education system because it’s viewed as a less than optimal outcome.”
Skeptics contend that one justified reason for resistance is that vocational training in high schools has historically resulted in a two-tier track where poor and minority students are funneled into trades while more affluent and white students are prepped for college.
“I have serious concerns,” said Carol Burris, executive director of the Network for Public Education. “Is this really about developing leadership or is it about developing a cheap labor supply?”
Burris didn’t rule out something positive coming out of the AGC push, but said if it limits high school students from pursuing college and doesn’t include instruction on how to build a business, she’d be more likely to view it in a negative light.
“I worry about kids making that decision way too early, and I worry about poor and minority kids pushed into a track where they’d lose the option to go to college or pursue higher-skilled jobs,” she said.
Bertha Lewis, president of the Black Institute, laughed out loud when told of the AGC’s plan and said it amounted to an empty gesture by the group’s all-white leadership.
“It’s the same old story,” said Lewis, who is black. “This is about them being able to say we’re addressing inequity…This is their noblesse oblige.”