MnDOT expanding efforts to train, hire more minorities

by Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
May 24, 2010

St. Paul, Minn. — State transportation officials say they will increase the amount of money they spend to train more minorities and women for construction jobs, and at the same time MnDOT says it is increasing its efforts to expand the business it does with women and minority-owned companies.

The announcement earlier this month by the Minnesota Department of Transportation comes after five years of talks with ISAIAH, a coalition of religious groups that proposed the change.

MnDOT says it will spend one-half of one percent of the federal highway money it receives each year to put more minorities and women on construction crews.

Officials say they'll start with a commitment this year of $700,000 that will more than double in four years.

Sarah Mullins, one of the ISAIAH negotiators said the money will be used to find, hire and train women and minorities for a range of skilled construction jobs.

"[It] could start with an unskilled labor job but you want them to have the skills to be able and go to do the heavy equipment operation or become a journeyman," Mullins said, "[and] to really move through a full path of being able to work any of the multitudes of jobs that contractors actually hire people to do."

Details of how the money will be spent are still being worked out.

Agency officials say nearly $400, 000 may be spent on six-month internships with trucking and highway contractors. Another $250,000 might be spent on heavy equipment operator training.

Louis King, executive director of Summit Academy, a Minneapolis construction training program and a participant in a more recent set of talks with MnDOT, said the new hiring commitment from the agency is more than a token gesture.

"We had nothing. So to go from zero to $700,000 today of taxpayer money is very valuable," King said. "By 2014 it's up to $1.7 million. Given the size [of] their initial commitment and that it more than doubles over a four-year period says a lot about them. I would not have thought they'd get there so quickly."

MnDOT officials say they are also expanding their effort to do business with more companies owned by women and minorities. Over the years MnDoT has consistently fallen short of meeting its own goals encouraging the agency's prime contractors to hire DBE's, Disadvantaged Business Enterprises.

MnDOT division director Bernie Arseneau more than a year ago began meeting with community groups, unions, contractors and others to address the problem. The meetings are being led by a facilitator hired by MnDOT.

Arseneau said the bitter feelings that many brought to the monthly sessions have grown into a collective understanding of what needs to be done.

"We get it, and we're going to figure out a way to insure that there's representation from all groups in the state," Arseneau said. "So this is something that I didn't expect coming in but it's been a great outcome of the relationship building that has occurred through the collaborative and it's doing exactly what we'd hoped."

Arseneau said the plan includes prime contractors who do business with MnDOT supplying a mentor for a woman or minority owned company to help them learn how to improve their performance on the job.

Arseneau said the agency will also supply more information about the opportunities for women and minority-owned companies and more information about the performance of the prime contractors in hiring them.

ISAIAH's Sarah Mullins attributes part of the change in attitude to recognition of how Minnesota's population is changing.

"I have heard increasingly from MnDOT, contractors and unions that they see that the demographics of the state are shifting," Mullins said. "That means their potential work force is changing and they, in their own self interest, to prepare the future workforce."

MnDOT's critics have for years faulted the agency for failing to create more construction opportunities for women and minorities. Negotiations with ISAIAH and other groups have heightened expectations for change.

Mullins said the responsibility for the community is to take seriously MnDoT's expanded commitment and watch to see how the agency follows through.

This story originally aired and appeared on MPR News Q on May 24, 2010.  Both text and audio can be accessed here: