Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Panelists Discuss St. Louis Construction Diversity

By KERRY SMITH, EDITOR, ST. LOUIS CONSTRUCTION NEWS AND REVIEW MAGAZINE

Associated General Contractors of Missouri Vice President Steve Lewis moderated a panel of construction industry experts in a virtual session known as “Contractor Connect: Building a Diverse St. Louis,” hosted by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan St. Louis.

The Nov. 16 conversation included industry panelists Berto Garcia of Garcia Companies, Carlos Huddleston of Gonzalez Companies, Garbriel Cardenas of Missouri Constructors and Dick Elsperman of Tarlton. Together with Lewis, the industry executives talked through the status of diversity representation within the context of commercial construction projects across St. Louis.

“The Latino community and people of color are underrepresented,” said Garcia, “particularly when it comes to minority business owners in this industry. There’s a big difference between being a tradesperson and taking that to the next level and becoming an owner. To most people, that’s still a big leap and a big hurdle, especially in areas such as achieving financing. From the (Hispanic Chamber’s) committee standpoint, we’re looking at this and will continue to study it. Educating minorities in what’s necessary for them to prepare to become (MBE)-certified so they can consider taking this next step is critical,” he added.

Cardenas said an approach his company has taken is to build ownership preparedness and potential with the population that’s already in the industry. “Together we can make the (underrepresentation) a smaller gap by promoting the companies in and around St. Louis that are already working in residential contracting and helping them expand into doing commercial construction,” he said.

Lewis noted that access to capital remains a huge impediment for Latinos and other minorities seeking to launch or expand their companies in the St. Louis region.

As for Cardenas’ company, it has not struggled in this area.

“We bank with Enterprise Bank & Trust and they’ve been good to us,” said Cardenas. “As far as accessing capital, we started in mainly residential work, so we were able to self-finance as we progressed through the builds. But with commercial construction, it’s a whole different scenario in terms of capital needs. Enterprise is there for us as we grow into 2021 and hopefully continue to gain more commercial work.”

Huddleston said that although minority business certifications like MBE and WBE create potential opportunities to gain work, a company’s ability to staff the job and maintain the workforce requirements that these certifications demand is where the challenges often ensue for minority-owned construction firms, particularly during periods of labor scarcity and a pandemic.

“Minority business certification is definitely a window that opens for you in terms of firm visibility and the opportunity to do the work,” said Huddleston. “Anybody can open the door, but then there’s the pressure to perform the work.”

Huddleston added that Gonzalez Companies and other engineering firms compete for new technical talent with IT companies that are recruiting a greater number of engineers.

“Construction is hard (physical) work,” he said. “You have to put in that hard work before you’re eligible to move up into a management role. We need to be mentoring and educating young people, minorities and others, telling them it’s not necessary to earn a 4-year degree in order to work in our field. There are roles such as an engineering technician. We need to be communicating how to achieve these careers as well.”

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