Cultivating the Next Generation of Diverse Construction Workers


by Ralph Powell Jr., Central Region Diversity Director, McCarthy Building Companies

Jehaleleel Grady is pictured, working in McCarthy’s construction yard. He participated in Dream Builders 4 Equity’s Summer Youth Academy, where he was introduced to construction.

For the recent graduate of Sumner High School in the city of St. Louis, it’s an opportunity to gain hands-on construction experience and chart his future career path.  

But it’s unlikely that Gandy would’ve connected with McCarthy—and vice versa—without his participation in the Summer Build Academy led by Dream Builders 4 Equity, a nonprofit community organization. 

The eight-week program introduces minority youth to construction, real estate and entrepreneurship as they rehabilitate homes in the Hyde Park neighborhood of north St. Louis. Not only do participants get paid for their work, but they also have an equity stake in the rehab projects and earn additional cash when a property is sold. Throughout the summer, youth participate in poetry and literacy workshops while journaling about their experience. Those journal entries are then published as a book, with youth receiving 100% of the proceeds from book sales. 

“I absolutely fell in love with Dream Builders 4 Equity because it helps minority youth discover and follow their own passions—whether that’s construction, real estate or another field,” said Gandy. 

The experience unlocked his interest in construction and mechanical engineering. And he’s able to explore both career paths by working at McCarthy during the day and attending night classes at Ranken Technical College. 

“Our job is finding out exactly what someone’s dream and goal is and then using our resources to connect them to whatever that is,” said Dream Builders 4 Equity Executive Director Michael Woods. “The real essence of the organization is giving young people ownership and letting them understand that through ownership, they gain a sense of pride and of value.”  

Dream Builders 4 Equity is one of many community organizations that equip minorities with the skills, connections and confidence to build successful construction careers.  

Since 2015, the MOKAN Construction Contractors Assistance Center has hosted a pre-apprenticeship training program to increase opportunities in the construction trades for people of color and women. 

During the 10-week program, students complete 80 hours of hands-on construction work, earn several industry certifications, and learn practical professional and life skills. Students also visit apprenticeship programs across the region and have an opportunity to participate in a career fair in north St. Louis. 

“We believe in meeting our students where they are and exposing them to the places they aspire to go,” said Yaphett El-Amin, executive director of MOKAN, noting a 78% employment rate of individuals who complete the program. “We save employers thousands of dollars because the training that we provide helps to ensure that our students are ready to hit the ground running when they’re on the job.” 

Nurturing Diverse Construction Businesses 

The St. Louis region has a strong history of nurturing minority-owned construction businesses such as BRK Electrical Contractors, a commercial and industrial electrical contractor started in 2003.  

Founder Marion Hayes credits the Missouri Small Business Development Center for helping him get the business off the ground. “We wouldn’t be where we are today if they weren’t involved in helping me secure financing and other resources,” said Hayes, who also cites local institutions such as Washington University, Saint Louis University and the city of St. Louis for their proactive commitment to boosting minority participation on their construction projects.  

 And Sabrina Westfall tapped into the expertise of numerous local organizations—from the AGC of Missouri to Enterprise University at Enterprise Bank & Trust—before she launched J West Electrical Contracting in 2014. “I took advantage of every free resource that I could find and networked with people to get my name out there,” she recalls. “Now, nine years later, those relationships are still extremely meaningful to me.” 

Helping future construction business owners has now become an area of focus for Westfall. “I’m always happy to share my experience and advice with newer firms or people thinking about going in business,” she said. “I think there’s plenty of room for young, curious firms to get started.” 

As McCarthy and other construction businesses continue to experience a challenging labor market, we’re fortunate to enjoy close partnerships with outstanding individuals, businesses and other organizations that are committed to attracting and developing diverse construction talent. Our ongoing collaboration with them is key to building the hospitals, schools, research facilities, office buildings and infrastructure that will serve our communities for generations to come.  

In his role as diversity director, Ralph Powell draws on his 18 years of hands-on construction field experience to expand McCarthy’s supplier diversity and community outreach program. This includes building and nurturing relationships with small and diverse businesses, capacity building and driving a comprehensive outreach strategy. He also manages diversity initiatives for major McCarthy building projects across the 28-state Central Region. Powell’s work supports McCarthy’s national Diversity, Equity and Inclusion program. 

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