Women, minorities gain from infrastructure jobs

Ana Garcia-Ashley and Bobby Love Sr.
Special to the Star

Kansas City’s Christopher S. Bond Bridge connects both sides of the Missouri River. Now the programs that prepared workers to build the bridge can connect women and minorities to job opportunities in transportation projects all across the country.

With the nation’s unemployment around 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?

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 under-employed, compared to 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, the Missouri Department of Transportation conducts ambitious on-the-job training and equal opportunity programs that offer examples for the entire country for preparing and placing minorities, women and the disadvantaged in good jobs repairing, rebuilding and replacing rundown roads and other transportation infrastructure.

Under this “Missouri Model,” the state Transportation Department partners with Metropolitan Congregations United, United Congregations of the Metro East and local community group, Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity (MORE²) to conduct community outreach and workforce development. Transportation officials reserve 30 percent of total work hours for minorities, women and other economically disadvantaged individuals. Meanwhile, 0.5 percent of the total project budget must be reserved for training and apprenticeship programs to prepare these and other workers for jobs on these projects.

These programs have been proven on three major highway and bridge programs, including the Christopher S. Bond Bridge in Kansas City, the Mississippi Bridge Project in St. Louis and the . the $550 million I-64 highway reconstruction in St. Louis, which was completed three weeks early and $11 million under budget.

Missouri’s transportation projects have ranked among the nation’s top ten states in conducting on-the-job training and apprenticeships and placing minorities and women in these programs. US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has recommended the Missouri Model, and the Federal Highway Administration has promoted its use in a series of workshops for signature projects such as the Rapid Bus Project near Hartford, Connecticut, and the Kosciuszko Bridge in New York City.

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. Transportation programs in other states, including Kansas, should also be encouraged to adopt community workforce agreements to encourage effective outreach, as well as ensure stability and accountability. In Kansas, MORE² is discussing a similar agreement with the state Department of Transportation.

Missouri has long been known as the “Show Me State.” Now, Missouri’s efforts at community outreach 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 non-partisan, 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. Rev. Bobby Love Sr. is the Co-Chair of MORE², the local Gamaliel affiliate, which has membership on both sides of the state line. Rev. Love is senior pastor of Second Baptist Church in Olathe, Kansas.

This Op Ed originally appeared in the Kansas City Star on October 13, 2011 and is available here: