Pittsburgh, once a poster city for economic decline following the collapse of the steel industry, is making a comeback. Part of that resurgence is a thriving construction sector fueled by rising residential and commercial buildings. Since 2008, Pittsburgh has completed nearly $5 billion in new construction, with another $4 billion in construction underway or in the pipeline.
Though that’s good news for the city’s economy, the city lacks the workforce needed to complete these projects, and industry reports forecast shortfalls of workers in the coming decades. Unemployed and underemployed residents lack the trade skills necessary ― knowledge of carpentry, plumbing, electrical ― to step into the void.
One reason for the void is a dearth of vocational schools. “We had done a lot of work building up our STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics] programs,” said Lindsay Powell, assistant chief of staff for the City of Pittsburgh. “But there was a big void for those who were interested in the trades.”
A bigger issue is the lack of diversity in the construction industry, which created additional barriers to employment for people of color. In 2017, the construction labor force in southwestern Pennsylvania, the center of the city’s construction boom and where Pittsburgh is located, was about 95 percent white and 88 percent male.
To help bring more local and diverse talent into construction jobs, the mayor’s office issued two executive orders. One requires that minorities comprise at least 12 percent of onsite workers for public-works projects worth half a million dollars or more. The other called for a new construction industry partnership to support outreach and recruitment efforts. FUSE executive fellow and Pittsburgh native Cynthia Shields worked with the mayor’s office to launch and oversee the unprecedented partnership, which has brought dozens of stakeholders together to diversify and grow the construction workforce.
Exploring the Issues
To get a high-level view of the construction workforce system and understand where the city needed to invest, Shields interviewed a range of workforce stakeholders. In her research, she found that although one quarter of the 120 workforce development organizations focused on preparing workers for the construction trade, only a few were considered viable sources of labor by the trade union. “We had 28 organizations that were training people for an industry that wasn’t likely to hire them,” Shields said. Similar training programs were in place for people with criminal backgrounds, but few employers were willing to accept these applicants.
The question of who — the union, contractors, funders — was accountable for the city’s diversity targets was another unresolved issue. Although targets for minority participation in city projects had been established, the exact approach of how to develop a diverse pipeline of qualified candidates was not clear.
To identify solutions, Shields oversaw the launch of the first citywide construction industry workforce partnership — no small accomplishment, considering it included stakeholders from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, each with a different perspective. The newly created Construction Industry Workforce Partnership comprises two dozen construction developers, contractors, buyers, trade organizations, and workforce training providers. Using a collaborative leadership method called Technology of Participation, Shields led the group in a strategic planning process that yielded four core strategies:
Strengthen Education and Outreach: Pittsburgh can take advantage of its position as an education hub, establishing school-industry partnerships, in which schools receive mentorship, curriculum support, internships, equipment, and other assistance from local businesses looking to cultivate a strong talent pool. The city plans to launch three to five of these partnerships, which create a pathway for people to receive high-quality, advanced workforce training and then move swiftly into jobs. This work will be accompanied by a targeted marketing campaign to raise awareness of careers in the construction industry among underrepresented groups. To educate youth about opportunities in the construction sector, the city will pilot a K-12 program that will offer mentoring, “maker” education (a hands-on, STEM-based teaching method designed to encourage creative problem-solving) field trips, and career simulation tools.
Partner with Employers: Pittsburgh needs to engage better with employers in the construction sector that stand to benefit from the workforce programming. So Shields is identifying employers who can serve as champions and advocates of the city’s initiatives. The city is also exploring other ways to collaborate with the private sector, such as partnering to host local career fairs and developing a joint funding mechanism to support training and education. Additionally, Shields is helping develop a tool that can aggregate ongoing and upcoming building projects, including the estimated number of workers required. Administrators can then match these needs to labor-availability information provided by the union to identify potential gaps and work with contractors to help fill them.
Reduce Barriers to Entry: Even with requisite training, low-income workers often face other barriers to entering the construction sector, including lack of transportation, childcare, or housing. These workers might also be dealing with the stigma or penalties associated with incarceration. The city is collaborating with employers and social-service providers to address these needs. For example, decades-old laws enacted as part of the “war on drugs” still lead to people losing their driver’s licenses for non-driving, drug-related offenses. “People will have their license suspended as part of their sentence, and they won’t know it,” Shields said. “And it won’t take effect until after they served their prison sentence. So they could go to prison for 10 years, get out, and then find out that their license is suspended for, in some cases, up to 22 years.” That can discourage people from attending training programs and prevent qualified people from getting jobs in the construction industry, where job sites can change from day-to-day and are often hard to access without a car.
The mayor’s office is supporting state legislation to remove this barrier, including a bill that would waive fines and fees associated with driver’s license renewal. The city plans to pilot several other transportation solutions, including shuttles and a car ownership assistance program. It is also exploring options to provide childcare for single parents interested in training programs or apprenticeships, and onsite housing for people whose housing situation is unstable or transitory.
The city is also exploring ways to make these resources more widely, regularly, and easily accessible. “We’re trying to figure out how we can embed support services so that people can access them more regularly and not just at the quarterly job fair,” Powell said. For example, the city might offer workforce development services at local recreation centers so youth can more readily access job and apprenticeship information.
Create a Unified Information Hub: Workforce activity in Pittsburgh is bustling, with almost 30 organizations focused on preparing people for the construction trade. Yet there are no shared standards to guide workforce development across these groups. There is also no centralized source of information for applicants, who instead have to navigate a complicated web of city, nonprofit, university, union, and private-sector sources. To address these challenges, the city is supporting efforts by the Builders’ Guild to develop a centralized web portal that will serve as a hub for potential applicants to learn about opportunities, pathways, and standards in the construction sector. It is also working with service providers and employers to develop union-endorsed trade standards that can inform construction workforce activities. More than $350,000 has been raised to fund the initiative.
Impact and Insights
The ultimate impact of this work will be to bring more diverse, skilled workers into the construction industry where they can earn family-sustaining wages. Some major milestones have already been achieved, perhaps the most significant being the creation of the Construction Industry Workforce Partnership. “I came from the public workforce system, and we’ve been working in this space for at least the last 10 years, trying to get more — and more diverse — people into the trades,” Shields said. “This is the first time that everyone has really been at the table.”
The timing was particularly ripe for this kind of cross-sector engagement. “Unions across the country are hurting because the workforce is getting older, and they need more workers to come through the door,” Powell said. “At the same time, we have people who were unemployed and underemployed. And in Pittsburgh, there is enormous demand for new construction. Those three pieces of the puzzle came together to create the conditions for collaboration, and the power of that convening was so important for the success of this endeavor.”
Despite this unprecedented cooperation, the city had to overcome the perception that the construction industry was being used as a catch-all for individuals who couldn’t find work elsewhere. To show that the city’s diversity efforts extend beyond construction, Shields talked about similar work being done in other sectors, such as healthcare and tech. When talking about the city’s diversification goals, Shields also emphasized youth engagement and the importance of finding qualified workers to meet the growing needs of the industry.
Also key to the success of the partnership was acknowledging that the issue of diversity in the construction industry has a long history. “In the ’70s, African-American men were going out and laying in front of bulldozers because they weren’t allowed to work on the sites,” Shields said. “The people that are in these rooms with me have been having this conversation for 40 years.”
To make progress, Shields reframed conversations and steered them in more productive directions. She also used tools such as human-centered design to ask different questions and, in some cases, ask the same questions differently. For example, when speaking with people from the trades, framing the question as, “How do we remove barriers so that people can get to work,” led to a more productive conversation than asking, “How do we help people who face barriers?” Shields also invited new people into the conversation — school teachers, tech entrepreneurs, and others whose potential to contribute wasn’t immediately obvious, but who added interesting insights. “Infusing new blood into an old conversation has been critical,” Shields said.
By using a holistic strategy that addresses both labor supply and demand, Pittsburgh is making progress on a deeply rooted problem. Through education, outreach, and the removal of barriers to entry, the city has been able to reach into communities that have traditionally been excluded from the skilled trades. At the same time, Pittsburgh is building demand for labor through more meaningful employer engagement. Underlying these initiatives is a collaborative structure with well-defined goals and clear lines of responsibility. If successful, Pittsburgh’s thriving construction sector can serve as both an example to other growing industries and a pathway to opportunity for residents.
Rikha Sharma Rani is a Bay-area based writer and journalist. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, USA Today, Politico Magazine, CityLab, and more.