Transportation repair programs can put disadvantaged on the road to good jobs

The Oregonian

By Ana Garcia-Ashley

With the nation's unemployment exceeding 9 percent, while highways, roads, bridges, airports and transit systems are in urgent need of repair, our nation's leaders are getting ready to make major investments in transportation infrastructure as a path to job creation.

Such traditional adversaries as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO are urging Congress to reauthorize the federal transportation program, including funds for rebuilding and repairing infrastructure. Meanwhile, President Obama's American Jobs Act proposes $50 billion in immediate investments in transportation facilities, and congressional Republicans are reportedly seeking ways to boost revenue levels in their proposed federal transportation act.

Important as these initiatives are for the nation's economy and transportation systems, they still leave one urgent question unanswered: Will those hardest hit by the recession, including minorities, women and low-income Americans from every demographic group, be lifted up or left behind?

In good times and bad, these groups have long been excluded from the multibillion-dollar highway construction industry. The economic crisis makes that exclusion even more harmful: As of September 2011, about 26 percent of African Americans and 22 percent of Hispanics were unemployed or underemployed, compared with 15 percent of non-Hispanic white workers. While unemployment among men has been gradually declining since June 2009, unemployment among women has been rising.

Fortunately, here in Oregon, equal opportunity and on-the-job training programs, supported by the state's Department of Transportation, prepare and place minorities, women and the disadvantaged in good jobs repairing, rebuilding and replacing rundown roads and other transportation infrastructure.

For instance, Lori Bauman moved to Oregon from Atlanta, where she had jobs as a carpenter's assistant and bartender. After settling in the Portland area, she took a training program in construction craft work offered by Oregon Tradeswomen Inc. Six months after she completed her training, she was working in the building trades.

Currently, she is part of the crew restoring the historic Oregon City Bridge. "My training was the best investment I could have made in myself, she says, "especially since so much work needs to be done fixing up our bridges and roads."

Such on-the-job training and apprenticeship efforts by community organizations and state departments of transportation "are an indispensable first step towards expanding job access for women and minorities," according to a new report, "The Road to Good Jobs: Making Training Work," by the Transportation Equity Network.

Because of such efforts, Oregon ranks fifth among the top 10 states in the percentage of federally funded construction jobs filled by on-the-job-training and apprentices, from 2008 through 2010. Further, the Oregon Legislature should be commended for directing one-half of one percent of some transportation dollars to job training, which provides consistent funding for jobs programs.

Now that the nation is getting ready to repair its roads, highways, bridges and airports, it's time to strengthen federal transportation legislation to increase the workforce hours and funds allocated for minorities, women and the disadvantaged and to expand on-the-job training, pre-apprenticeship and apprenticeship programs. State transportation programs should also be encouraged to adopt community workforce agreements to encourage effective outreach, as well as ensure stability and accountability.

More than a century-and-a-half ago, Americans followed the Oregon Trail to the Pacific Northwest. Now, the efforts by Oregon and other states at equal opportunity and workforce development are showing the entire nation how programs to repair transportation infrastructure can put minorities, women and other low-income Americans on the road to new skills, better-paying jobs and more promising futures.

Ana Garcia-Ashley is executive director of the Gamaliel Foundation, a grassroots network of nonpartisan, faith-based organizations in 18 states that organizes to empower people to effectively participate in the political, environmental, social and economic decisions affecting their lives. Gamaliel's Transportation Equity Network recently released the report "The Road to Good Jobs: Making Training Work."