In my first job on a construction site as a young civil engineer, my boss didn’t think the Confederate flag draping the wall behind his desk was a problem. Systemic racism and unconscious biases were common in architecture, engineering and construction in the 1980s. I really got along well with this man despite his despicable views. He put me in a different category than the Black craft workers on our projects, who my former boss treated as second-class citizens. He would berate them, as if they were lazy, for taking naps on their lunch break. In truth, many of them struggled to balance a tough work day while attending night school as well.
Years later we can’t deny that racism persists. In 2018, the Associated General Contractors founded the Culture of Care project in Seattle after two Black workers discovered a noose in their work area and their foreman and supervisor made light of it. Threatening incidents are still too common; sexism is a problem, too. I know contractors that have had to pay damages for hostile jobsite environments.
There’s no surprise, then, that 88% of construction workers and 84% of architecture and engineering professionals are white and only 10% of construction workers and 26% of architecture and engineering professionals are women, according to recent federal statistics. More minorities and women will help put an end to hostile work environments and the lawsuits they bring. And they may help make construction safer by increasing the trust and cooperation among workers at the jobsite, where everyone needs to look out for one another. Eliminating tension makes teamwork go faster, too, with benefits that also increase productivity and profitability.
Another issue is how to spur minority interest in STEM careers, something that has consumed a lot of attention, for good reason. My twin sister Cheryl and I were lucky to grow up in the construction industry. Our father, William DeBerry McKissack, an architect, would take us to work with him when we were six, prop us up on his drawing boards and teach us how to draw details, do schedules, use Leroy lettering, make legends and more. Our mother, Leatrice, taught math.
Not all minority children have that advantage. Math scores still lag for minorities on standardized tests, although Hispanic students are showing improvement. Diversity and inclusion collaborations with colleges and accrediting boards, minority scholarships, ACE Mentor programs and apprenticeships all have exposed minorities to the potential for STEM study and careers. But that’s just the start.
Hiring minorities and women-owned contractors was always good for business, and now, in a year of social unrest, more companies realize that such practices align with their corporate social responsibility goals. Unfortunately, minority- and women-owned business enterprises face systemic barriers that will make meeting these goals harder. Most MWBEs are undercapitalized and small. I started my design and construction management firm 30 years ago with $1,000 and a cold-call list of 300 prospects.
Today, the coronavirus pandemic has dealt minority-owned firms a new and substantial blow: 41% of Black business owners, 32% of Hispanic owners and 26% of Asian-American owners closed their doors between February and April.
To compete in the capital-intensive construction business, they must do more than stay on their feet. But it’s hard for these firms to establish trust, and harder still to grow beyond constrained subcontracting roles and win work as prime contractors in large programs dominated by old-guard companies. Although the public-works sector certifies MWBE vendors, helps them learn the ropes and bid for contracts where they prove their value, the firms compete head to head. Meanwhile, mergers and consolidations solidify the edge for incumbent majority contractors.
A majority-minority workforce is not far away, however, and the new generation won’t take disparities linked to racism in stride. Minorities and women already make up nearly 70% of the population. Job recruits shouldn’t face the cool reception that women and minorities of my generation encountered. If we care enough to build a better workplace for them now, they will help us build an enduring future for the industry.
Deryl McKissack is CEO of McKissack & McKissack, an architecture, engineering and construction management firm based in Washington, D.C. She can be reached at Deryl.McKissack@mckinc.com.