Construction is constantly underway at the College. If you’re currently on campus, this news comes as no surprise. What may be more surprising is who we are hiring to work on these projects. Nationally, white men dominate the construction industry, and our own campus, despite its progressive intentions, reflects this inequity. Although we scrutinize our student body and faculty and seek to practice what we preach in terms of demographic diversity, the daily workings of the College continue to be overlooked and remain outside of the purview of our policies about equity and diversity.
In 1978, President Carter’s administration aimed to have people of color working at least 15.3 percent and women working at least 6.9 percent of the available hours in construction. National mandates mean nothing, however, if they aren’t adopted locally. The lack of concrete policies around equity in construction hiring at private institutions like Williams College in part explain why in 2015 women made up only 2.7 percent, African Americans 6.9 percent and Asian Americans 1.3 percent of the construction industry. Although Latinx people made up 33.3 percent of the construction industry in 2015, they were overwhelmingly confined to low-skill, low-pay occupations within the industry. This prevents people with marginalized identities from entering an occupation that has traditionally been, and continues to be, a gateway to the middle-class in our society.
The only prerequisites for working in the construction industry are a high school diploma or GED equivalency and physical ability. According to the US Department of Labor, in 2015 the median annual wage for construction trades occupations was $46,290, and the median hourly wage was $19.72, 13 percent greater than the median hourly wage for all occupations. In the Boston area, the average annual wage for construction workers is even higher, at $63,000, and construction work almost always includes benefits that ensure employees’ long-term safety and economic security. This makes construction a particularly important industry for previously incarcerated people seeking to reintegrate into society and reestablish a stable source of income to avoid recidivism.
Approximately 18 months ago, the College implemented a policy that requires that all contractors collect Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) forms from prospective employees before considering them for hiring. While some claim screening applicants can increase student safety, it can also decrease safety by forcing previous offenders to resort to underground economies in order to survive after reentry and can replicate systems of inequality. Any effort to increase construction equity must include revisiting the CORI requirement and ensuring that we collect data about who we are rejecting and accepting, particularly since the criminal justice system disproportionately convicts people of color and people in poverty and puts people behind bars for nonviolent crimes which do not pose a threat to public safety. We want, whenever possible, to practice restorative rather than punitive forms of justice because these practices promote an inclusive rather than exclusive community.
So what’s holding us back from implementing a policy around equity in construction hiring on campus? The primary concern seems to be encapsulated by the question: “Are there women and people of color ready and willing to work in construction in western Massachusetts?” The answer is absolutely! The College defines “local” as anywhere within a 50-mile radius and only sources about 20 percent of its construction hires locally, meaning that major metropolises with significant populations of color could easily be hired for construction projects on campus. Additionally, the Carpenter’s Union in Northampton, Mass. is actively recruiting women and people of color for its paid apprenticeship program; no experience is necessary, and free ESL classes are offered. Lastly, installing policies around equity in construction hiring can make the industry seem like a viable option for those who are currently underrepresented in the industry, creating a positive cycle of increased accessibility. It’s a two-way street.
The College is a major employer in Berkshire County. Thus, it is imperative that its hiring practices reflect our commitment to diversity and justice more broadly. We are invested in the long-term work of establishing an achievable policy to increase equity and transparency in construction hiring on campus. We want this to be a collaborative, open and intersectional effort that engages all facets of the Williams community. Please reach out to us if you are interested in becoming involved in the effort to increase equity in construction hiring or if you simply want to educate yourself (as we have been attempting to do) on this often overlooked issue! Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Olivia Goodheart ’19 is from Lorane, Ore. and lives in Currier. Rachel Jones ’18 is from New Haven, Conn. and lives in Lambert. Emma York ’19 is from New Bedford, Mass. Eli Cytrynbaum ’20 is from Eugene, Ore. and lives in Fayerweather.