Students explore equity in construction at the College

During Claiming Williams day, the Feminist Collective and Converging Worlds organized a panel to discuss the underrepresentation of women and people of color in the construction industry and how the College could improve on its efforts to increase diversity in its own hiring practices. Titled “Breaking Barriers for Women and POC in the White, Male World of Construction,” the panel featured tradeswomen from the New England Regional Carpenters Union, who are advocating for more diversity and equity in the industry.

“The focus of the panel was first and foremost to highlight women in the construction industry and their work breaking barriers, battling racism and sexism and organizing for equity in the industry in Western Massachusetts, in particular as part of their union,” Alexandra Griffin ’19, one of the panel organizers, said.

Under current protocol, when undertaking a new construction project, the College hires construction managers (CMs) or general contractors (GCs) to manage the operation. CMs or GCs then hire subcontractors for the disciplines involved in the project, such as electrical or carpentry. While the College is involved in vetting subcontractors, it does not tell CMs or GCs which specific firms to hire or not hire.

“The College does participate in vetting the subs that bid in each discipline, but we don’t direct our CMs or GCs to hire or not hire particular firms,” Rita Coppola-Wallace, executive director of design and construction, said. “Ultimately, it’s their responsibility to manage their subs.” Coppola-Wallace, however, did note that as an exception to this rule, the College does instruct its CMs and GCs not to hire from a list of firms that have had previous performance issues on campus.

In an op-ed published in the Record shortly before the Claiming Williams panel, Olivia Goodheart ’19, Rachel Jones ’18, Emma York ’19 and Eli Cytrynbaum ’20 cited concerns that the low levels of female and minority construction workers on campus were contributing to national levels of underrepresentation. The op-ed noted that, in 2015, “women made up only 2.7 percent, African Americans 6.9 percent and Asian Americans 1.3 percent of the construction industry” (“Diversifying local labor: examining hiring practices in construction at the College,” Jan. 24, 2018). Currently, the College does not track any data regarding what percentage of its workforce is made up of women and people of color.

“We encourage CMs to hire minority- or woman-owned business enterprises, and we request [that] the CMs track their use of such firms for us,” Coppola-Wallace said. “We don’t track workforce hours or vendor percentages for women or people of color as of now.”

Also discussed in both the op-ed and the panel were concerns that the College’s vetting process for employees could make it difficult for formerly convicted workers to get jobs in an industry typically seen as a gateway to the middle class. Currently, the College performs Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) checks on all vendors who do business with the College, which reveal any felony committed within the past 10 years, any misdemeanor committed within the past five years as well as any instance of murder, manslaughter or sex offense.

According to Coppola-Wallace, having a positive CORI result does not automatically disqualify someone from work on a College project. Results are reviewed on a case-by-case basis with each individual  contractor because of the varying levels of complexity and severity that exist in different situations. “We consider the severity of the charges, background and mitigating circumstances and the length of time since the offense or conviction,” Coppola-Wallace said. “For example, someone who was convicted of possessing a small amount of a banned substance 10 years ago would be eligible to work on campus today. On the other hand, a person who was convicted of the sale and distribution of a banned substance within the past year wouldn’t be.” She noted that for a few specific types of convictions, including sexual predation, positive results do automatically disqualify workers.

Still, organizers of the panel feel that the College can do far more to address issues of diversity in its construction hiring practices.

“As panel organizers, we think the College should lift CORI restrictions for workers and set hiring requirements for women and people of color,” Griffin said. “However, as of now, we haven’t made any formal proposals to the administration, and we look forward to further conversation with them in the future.”

As a result of the panel, Coppola-Wallace, along with Associate Vice President for Finance Matt Sheehy and Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer Fred Puddester, have made plans to use student ideas as a starting point for further discussions on how the College can improve diversity standards in its construction hiring practices going into the future.

“We got some very thoughtful questions from students around that panel and appreciated the interest,” Coppola-Wallace said. “In the wake of Claiming Williams, staff from Planning, Design and Construction are going to meet with the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity to discuss what more the College can do to promote the hiring of women and people of color on campus construction projects. Students should feel proud that they helped encourage that discussion.”

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