The construction industry is one of the largest employment sectors in New England and New York. Particularly when comprised of union workers, the industry provides pathways to opportunity, good wages and benefits. Unfortunately, women and people of color have a long and painful history of not sharing in equal employment opportunities or compensation in all industries, especially in construction. In the 1960s, with continued pressure from the Civil Rights and feminist movements, the United States adopted federal protections against employment discrimination by contractors or subcontractors on the “basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” However, not until April 1978, did the federal government establish concrete goals for progress toward equality in the construction industry. At that time, the Carter Administration amended Executive Order 11246 to require that 6.9% of contractors’ work hours for federally-funded projects be performed by women and varying percentages around the country for minorities. Over thirty years later, these target numbers remain unchanged. Unfortunately, for women in particular, these goals also remain unmet.
While other male-dominated occupations such as physicians, lawyers, the military, and police have made significant gains in increasing the participation of women, the construction industry numbers remain woefully low, nearly stuck at their 1978 levels. This lack of progress is especially troubling because employment in the construction industry is such a vital economic driver in many communities in New England and throughout the nation. According to the most recent survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, construction trades workers earn a median hourly wage of $20.34, nearly triple the federal minimum wage of $7.25. According to a 2014 National Women’s Law Center report, female construction workers earn “roughly double the median hourly wage” compared to many majority-female occupations like childcare workers, housekeepers and home health aides, all of whom earn a median wage of less than $11 per hour. Despite years of efforts by labor unions, community groups, select government agencies, and responsible contractors, women and people of color have remained underrepresented in the construction workforce. Women comprise 50% of our population, but work just 3% of total construction workhours. The New England Regional Council of Carpenters, in coalition with its community partners, believes that this can and must change. We seek to work with colleges and universities to use their institutional resources as a catalyst to ensure that women and people of color have equal opportunity to succeed in construction and earn a fair living.
In 1983, the City of Boston adopted the “Boston Residents Jobs Policy” which requires that projects linked to city funds employ city residents for 50% of its workhours, people of color for 25% of its work hours, and women for 10% of its work hours. More than two decades after Boston’s innovative policy, former Governor Deval Patrick adapted the inclusive hiring standards of the Carter administration (6.9% for women and 15.3% for people of color) for state-funded building projects. Governor Patrick’s commitment occurred as a result of advocacy by the Policy Group on Tradeswomen’s Issues (PGTI). PGTI was formed by Liz Skidmore of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters and Susan Moir, former Director of the Labor Resource Center at UMass Boston. It is a working group of union members, contractors, community organizations, activists, and government officials who work to build upon past and emerging efforts to expand access and opportunity in construction for more women in Massachusetts and nationally. As a result of their work, the Mass Gaming Commission made construction diversity a key component of the winning bids for gaining the casino licenses in state. Other private owners, including some colleges and universities are following suit. PTGI and the Massachusetts Gaming Commission have recently launched a campaign and a website (buildalifema.org) aimed at recruiting more women to the building trades.