Diversity Inclusion in Construction is More Than a Construction Problem

in Opinion

By Scott Wilson

Achieving meaningful diversity has risen to the top of the St. Louis area construction industry’s agenda, and nowhere was that more evident than at a recent construction industry event, where more than 450 people representing trade associations, contractors, subcontractors, unions, project owners, educators and activists discussed the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead  locally.  All agreed that a diverse industry is a powerful goal that brings more economic opportunities to women and minorities and creates a broader, more competitive base of employees, contractors and subcontractors.  But the advance of technology in construction today requires a more highly trained workforce than ever before.  This means society must better prepare disadvantaged students and entrepreneurs to enter and succeed in construction than ever before.

Construction today is commonly viewed by the public as an unsophisticated industry.  The fact is there are only skilled workers in construction.  Today’s journeyman carpenters, plumbers,  electricians, equipment operators, laborers and others on the job site are professionals, having completed three to five years of training and apprenticeship experience.  Technological advances touch virtually every job in construction today.

Further, today’s construction skills training requires basic reading and mathematics skills that exceed what many disadvantaged students are bringing with them to high school.  At the St. Louis Construction Careers Center (CCC), the average high school age student entering the program is 3-4 grade years behind where they should be in reading and math skills, and thus require taking remedial reading and math courses before proceeding into technical training.  In fact, most CCC students do not graduate, and of those that do, most leave the construction field altogether in just a few years.

On the minority subcontractor front, many women and minority construction entrepreneurs entering the construction field have little business experience to support their companies.  Their focus on daily job site operations takes away from learning proper fiscal management and risk management.  This usually leads to a premature demise of these businesses and lingering feelings of frustration and mistrust.

Thankfully, there are a number of construction industry efforts underway to help address the diversity problem, although they are all done at the industry’s expense.  Most construction projects today now feature a voluntary (or mandatory) set of goals designed to promote inclusiveness and diversity.  The contractors on these projects have turned to on-the-job training of workers and mentoring of minority subcontractors to achieve these goals.  In the past it was up to the general contractor or construction manager to make this happen, and to pay the tab for getting it done.

Now it is time for the owners of projects to step up and help pay for diversity inclusion costs.  And in a bigger way, it is time for the public to understand that diversity inclusion is not just a construction industry problem – it is a community-wide problem.  Societal problems run deeper than what the construction industry alone can address.  Society must also realize that today’s
construction industry is more technology driven and sophisticated than in the past.

As the post-Ferguson public dialogue seeks long term solutions to the social and economic issues facing minorities in our community, construction wants to be at the table to do our part.  But we can’t do it alone.

Scott Wilson is Chief Executive Officer of S. M. Wilson & Co.  He received the 2009 ‘Diversity Champion Award’ by the St. Louis Council of Construction Consumers in recognition of his extensive efforts to promote diversity in the local construction industry. The Minority Contractors Association of St. Louis recruited Scott to serve on its first Executive Committee. He served as chairman of the Regional Business Council Diversity Committee, where he was instrumental in securing funding for the Career Coaching Program.