How diversity and inclusion in the building trades will boost our economy

If you walked onto a job site in Minneapolis in 2011, you’d see a vast majority of white men aged from about thirty to sixty years old. About a decade ago, that status quo was only beginning to be challenged. The economy wasn’t in a great place after the recession, and it was severely impacting the construction industry. Infrastructure projects were stalled, costing taxpayers billions annually. An underground economy was flourishing where employers routinely misclassified workers as independent contractors instead of employees – a practice that specifically prays on non-white workers. The problems were clear as day, but steps weren’t being proactively taken to mitigate them.

Fast forward to 2020: the Finishing Trades Institute of the Upper Midwest received a generous grant from the Minnesota Department of Labor to foster diversity and inclusion in our apprenticeship program. Apprenticeship participants shot up to 47.9 percent women and minorities. Those same job sites that were mostly white men in 2011 became more diverse, and the benefits were immediately clear.

When a concerted effort was put into training young women and individuals from diverse backgrounds, we predicted that we’d start to engage people from communities that we hadn’t before.

What we didn’t predict is the almost immediate shift in culture at our training facility and on local job sites. Instructors became more invested in the success of all their students, even during the onset of the pandemic. They ramped up communication to ensure students stayed engaged and on track; and students started taking more initiative to get advanced certificates.

Employers started talking more about the importance of diversity and inclusion on their job sites, and the benefits it brings for the mental wellbeing of their employees. We started receiving more engagement from parents of high schoolers and school counselors who were previously more likely to guide students toward traditional four-year colleges. 

A sense of true solidarity was shown when apprentices noticed their colleagues struggling in the workplace, and they began to reach out more to provide emotional support. Though that was what we had all wanted and needed for the past four years, we could never have predicted the impact the conscious decision to become more inclusive would have.

Though we still can’t predict all of the effects these positive efforts will have on our industry, we can make informed guesses thanks to ongoing research by the McKinsey Institute. Based on a year-long research study that focused on the correlation between companies’ profitability and diversity, we can predict that employers who prioritize diversity in their hiring practices are likely to see increased cash flow by about 200 percent over about three years. Apprentices’ performances will more than likely continue to improve. If our employers continue to hire from our diverse program, those employees are about 35 percent more likely to outperform their peers who work at less diverse companies.

One of the most common arguments about diversity in the building trades is that “women don’t want to work these jobs,” or even worse, “construction is a man’s job.” To put it simply, women hadn’t been included in recruitment efforts until very recently. When FTIUM began to specifically reach out to young women and young women of color, they started enrolling in our programs and quickly climbing the ranks in their respective trades. By diversifying our applicant pool and taking a competency-based approach to enrollment in 2020, more women began building their careers in the finishing trades industry.

The women members of the IUPAT experience no pay gap thanks to worker protections that were hard won by consistent, collective actions by tens of thousands of union members. This continues to influence contractors across the country; If those contractors want to earn respect from the public and get the biggest jobs in their regions, they have to first eliminate the pay gap. Efforts like these are what fuels our fire to continue recruiting and training individuals from diverse backgrounds.

The toughest pill to swallow for those of us who work in the building trades industry is that we have been stifling our economic growth for decades by not putting the effort into diversifying our workforce. It’s time for the building trades industry to collectively take a giant step forward and ensure our future will foster economic growth opportunities for employers and workers of all backgrounds. Our economy, our culture, and the future of all of our communities depend on it.