The level of minority participation in construction apprenticeships is frustrating the leaders of the Milwaukee Branch of the NAACP.
But members of the industry charged with improving participation rates say the high unemployment rate in construction makes it impossible to place any new apprentices.
“This is the worst construction recession since the Great Depression,” said Lyle Balistreri, president of the Milwaukee Building and Construction Trades Council. “I’ve never seen anything this bad, and now people are knocking us because we don’t have enough placements?”
The Milwaukee Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People counted 147 minority apprentices among the 1,740 apprentices enrolled in the Milwaukee area in January. Two years ago, the NAACP reported 366 minority apprentices among the 1,989 enrolled in Milwaukee-area union programs in September 2007.
The latest report shows the industry is not making enough progress, and state government should use a heavier hand to require participation, said Jerry Ann Hamilton, NAACP Milwaukee Branch president. She said the organization will start a new push to increase participation by pressuring the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development, which oversees apprenticeship programs.
If that does not yield more action, the association will pursue other routes and consider taking legal action, she said.
“If we don’t have any minorities on site, close the job down,” Hamilton said, “even if we have to take more drastic measures.”
State law requires apprenticeship committees set goals and establish programs to recruit apprentices and requires DWD recommend ways to improve programs that fall short. Programs can be decertified if they show continued disregard for recruiting minorities for apprenticeships.
Paul Blackman, chairman of the NAACP Milwaukee Branch’s construction committee, said he does not think the construction industry is trying hard enough to increase participation rates on its own.
“We’re not averse to working with employers and with unions,” he said, “but I guess the history and the record is so bad that we have to rely on the laws. We have to rely on the organizations that have oversight authority.”
The slowdown in construction work has put journeymen on layoff, and builders will not hire trainees if they do not have enough jobs for their skilled workers, Balistreri said. The industry remains dedicated to increasing participation, and unions and their signatory contractors have dedicated millions to the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership/Big Step, which trains Milwaukee residents so they can qualify to begin apprenticeships, he said.
“We’re at 30 percent unemployment,” he said. “By the end of the year, I bet we’ll be at 50 percent. Heavy highways is the only thing that’s been going on right now.”
Blackman said the training programs and the lack of apprenticeship opportunities do not soothe his concerns because participation numbers have not improved.
“That’s a good excuse,” he said, “and we understand what is going on now. But you know what we’re concerned about now is the numbers are not going to change when things get better.”
Blackman last year asked the U.S. Department of Labor about minority participation in Wisconsin construction apprenticeship programs. The federal agency found no violations, and, noting statewide increases in minority participation over the years, told the state DWD to continue efforts to increase minority recruitment and retention.
Rhandi Berth, associate director of WRTP/Big Step, said the lack of new apprenticeship opportunities led her group to offer candidates free training in new skills. The group has started new courses that teach potential apprentices construction safety, basic road-building skills, underground construction and lead abatement, she said. The program lets people on apprenticeship waiting lists gain skills, she said.
Berth said the training organization has hundreds of people on waiting lists, but has not yet cut back on training efforts.
“We don’t want to stop what we do,” she said, “but we don’t want to give people false hope either.”
Balistreri said considering his organization’s efforts to train minorities for apprenticeships, he does not think the NAACP’s criticism is fair.
“People aren’t looking at what’s happening in the industry,” he said of the rash of layoffs. “They’re just throwing statements at people and banging on the industry.”