Op-Ed | We must build a more inclusive & diverse construction industry

Construction working putting plaster on a wall
Photo via Getty Images

New York City’s economy is in flux. Its unemployment rate is twice the national average, and the Big Apple is still missing 176,000 jobs compared to pre-pandemic levels, even as the country’s economy overall has regained pandemic-related job losses. While solving this challenge will require broad, long-term solutions, City Hall is focused on the right pain points to promote recovery. Deputy Mayor Sheena Wright recently identified “economic mobility for people of color who are low-income” as the Adams administration’s priority.

That is good news for all New Yorkers.

For the construction industry, this must be a call to action. Leaders in our industry – which has long been an economic engine of New York City – need to ensure that we are taking every step possible to assist and boost participation from traditionally underserved communities. If we do, we can help New York City chart a new course – and help guarantee that our recovery is as equitable and fair as possible.

Historically, the construction industry has not lived up to its ideals in this area. In many cases, Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprises (MWBE) and veteran-owned businesses are not given a fair chance to participate on the many burgeoning job sites across the five boroughs. While programs to promote MWBE contracting at both the City and State level are working to address these problems, they are only a first step.

Unfortunately, the same issues exist at the individual level. Many workers seek employment at the sites in their communities but are routinely denied access. Change can start by tearing down traditional barriers to employment. With targeted apprenticeship and specific skills training opportunities, we can equip workers of all backgrounds with certifications, mentorship, and training to get them on the job – and quickly.

Though ambitious, this is achievable right now. Our firm, Gilbane Building Company, is trying to lead by example. Projects under our leadership – which include the Metropolitan Hospital Flood Wall Resiliency Project with NYC Health & Hospitals and Bush Terminal’s Made in New York (MiNY) campus– currently range from 45 to 60 percent MWBE participation.

And we’re looking to build on that progress. We just announced a commitment to award $1 billion in contracts to MWBE+ businesses by 2026 in New York and double the share of participation of Black- and Hispanic-owned firms on our job sites over the same period.

We also know that workforce development needs to be front and center. At Gilbane, we’re creating a fellowship program with non-profit organizations who will place ethnically and racially diverse candidates interested in construction with promising small MWBE businesses that have successfully completed our Rising Contractor Program, in which I am a mentor. We will also ask our biggest trade partners to work on these issues as part of our new Economic Inclusion Partner-Mentor program. And we will commit to the success of these programs while continuing to think through additional actions we can take to help facilitate a more diverse, inclusive construction industry.

Again, let’s be clear: these are not pie-in-the-sky commitments. For generations, dating back at least to the early days of the 20th century when immigrants and Americans flocked to New York in search of a better life for their families, construction has always proven to be a reliable pathway to the middle class. In the process, those workers built the homes, offices, and iconic landmarks that still shape our communities to this day.

We believe that we can recreate this progress in the 21st century, and, in the process, help drive New York’s economy forward – and that’s a true win-win.

Diaz is the Public Sector Area Manager for New York at Gilbane Building Company.