By Sammi Cohen
People of color in central New York aren’t getting a fair number of jobs in the construction industry, a local study finds. According to a new study by the Urban Jobs Task Force and the Legal Services of Central New York, there’s a major racial disparity in the New York construction industry despite people of color making up a quarter of the state population.
Researchers analyzed a group of construction projects taking place in New York state including the I-690 project, the Syracuse Hancock Airport Renovations, and the Lakeview Amphitheater in Onondaga.
Researchers found that 88% of the construction workers on these projects were white. Approximately 4% of workers were black or indigenous and only a few workers were Hispanic and Asian.
Although 3 million contract and temporary employees work for staffing companies in a given week, many of those employees ought to be people of color due to New York’s demographics. People of color make up 36% of the Syracuse population and 56.3% of the Rochester population.
“Workforces are white in Central New York and we’ve seen it driving by them,” said Andrew Croom, an attorney from Legal Services of Central New York who worked on the study. “Was I ready for how white they were? No.”
The U.S. construction industry is usually a good place for American workers to earn money. Construction projects have public money in them paid for by tax dollars, beneficiaries of government grants, or tax breaks. In 2016 alone, the construction market was worth $1,162 billion and the composite materials market is expected to reach $38 billion by 2023.
The lack of inclusivity in the industry is concerning for many reasons, but especially because it keeps impoverished New Yorkers from finding good-paying jobs. Up to 16% of Rochesterians are living in extreme poverty and 15% of those in Monroe County live below the poverty line.
“You know, living in a city that’s 50% minority and 50% white, I expected a project like I-690 that’s two blocks from my house to be represented by the city where it is,” said Croom. “And it was so far from that, that yes, I found [these] results shocking.”
Urban Jobs President Deka Dancil says there are historical reasons why many people of color aren’t working in construction. The construction of Interstate 81 caused economic and racial segregation, urban renewal, and redlining.
“[This] made the networks of minorities only be with other poor minorities,” said Dancil. “And the networks of white people, for people who had the paying jobs, [were] exposed to the construction trade. I tell you … my whole time growing up in high school, I never even heard a thing about it.”
Dancil also points out that barriers such as non-paid training, lack of transportation, and lack of childcare prevent those who are already living in poverty from getting into construction programs that could lead to higher paying jobs.
Croom says that there are ways to ensure inclusivity in construction projects. LA Metro in Los Angeles is creating workforce agreements within their PLAs and have unions in the community working together.
New York state could see more collaboration with unions and have them more actively recruit in the city with targeted training, Croom says. Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh recently launched Syracuse Build in an effort to train those in the city who are looking to work on the I-81 project.
However, Dancil says she isn’t as optimistic after seeing years of meetings on the topic of boosting inclusivity in the construction industry. The voices of local residents need to join those of policymakers, she says.
“I think what it comes down to [is] that there has to be a big table,” says Croom, “there has to be collective action to say ‘we’re all here. We all want the same thing.’ So, we have to work together to make those policies.”