Illinois supports women, minority highway construction workers

Illinois supports women, minority highway construction workers

Medill Reports

By Susanna Pak

Oct 4, 2011

From 2008 to 2010, there were 114 women trainees in the highway construction industry in Illinois, representing 11 percent of the total number of trainees in the state.

There were a total of 209 minority on-the-job trainees in Illinois during that same two-year period, representing about 20 percent of the state's trainee population.

If you pictured a white middle-aged male, there is new data to back up that image: In many states, women and minorities do not have plentiful training opportunities for highway construction jobs. That’s according to a study released Tuesday by the Transportation Equity Network, a nationwide grassroots organization of more than 350 community groups.

But that may be changing-- Illinois is one of four states that saw an increase in the percentage of both women and minorities in training programs from 2008 to 2010, the time period covered by the study.

“Traditionally, the field has been dominated by white males, and that’s true of many professions in America,” said Transportation Equity Network spokesman Stephen Boykewich in an interview Tuesday. “And these programs are one way to help change that.”

The training and apprenticeship programs are based on the “Missouri Model,” which recommends reserving at least 0.5 percent of project budgets for training programs, and devoting 30 percent of the work hours to economically disadvantaged individuals, minorities and women. In Missouri, two major highway and bridge projects were successfully built using a version of the model since 2008.

“We have the ingenuity. We can see the details. We can see the big picture,” said retired carpenter Rocky Hwasta, referring to female construction workers, in an interview Tuesday. In 1985, she took a pre-apprenticeship class with 24 other people – all men. “I think diversity in the workforce is important. You don’t want to limit yourself to one point of view.”

In 2008, there were a total of 10 women trainees and apprentices in highway construction in Illinois. Two years later, that number grew to 114, making up 11 percent of the total number of trainees in the state.

More than 200 minority workers were hired during that same period, representing 20 percent of all training positions.

Nationwide, Illinois hired the second-highest number of on-the-job trainees and apprentices, resulting in a total of 1,028 highway construction positions between 2008 and 2010. Illinois came in second to Indiana, which hired 545 more people.

There are no numbers available on what percent of trainees go on to get full-time jobs in the highly paid highway construction industry. Benefits also are good in many cases, including healthcare coverage and pensions.

“The thing we know for sure is that these training programs are the indispensible first step,” Boykewich said. “If you can’t break into the field with the training and apprenticeship program, it’s extraordinarily difficult to get into the field.”

According to the study, roughly 15 percent of white workers were unemployed or underemployed as of September, while 26 percent of African-Americans and 22 percent of Hispanics were in that same condition.

And while unemployment among men has been slowly decreasing since June 2009-- from 10.6 percent to 9.6 percent-- unemployment among women has actually increased during the same period, from 8.3 percent to 8.5 percent.

This is the first study to collect and analyze data from state transportation departments on participation in on-the-job training and apprenticeship programs for federally funded highway construction. It includes data from all 50 states and Washington, D.C.