Constructing Hope by removing industry employment barriers
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These are challenging times. The COVID-19 pandemic has required all of us to adjust our lives and calibrate a new normal. Meanwhile, the pandemic has exacerbated social inequities that inspired recent social unrest, which Portland has helped keep in the spotlight. And wildfires rage across America’s western states, destroying communities, homes and livelihoods in Oregon, and beyond. There is no better time than now to collectively open our eyes and bridge societal gaps in diversity, equity and inclusion.

Diversity, equity and inclusion are central to our business at Mortenson. Diversity in construction has come a long way over the past few decades. It is a measurable reflection of the variety of people in society, with all their differences, including characteristics you can and can’t see. Inclusion means being open to and listening to all of the people around you or your organization, and embracing a variety of ideas, voices, knowledge, backgrounds and talents.

Equity has traditionally been less understood, but current events have leveled a broader understanding societally and have prioritized equity practices within businesses like ours. Think of it this way: Two equally qualified individuals apply for a job. One has a hammer and work boots, and the other does not. Which is the better candidate? The answer: Both. To embrace equity, it is our responsibility to provide people with the resources they need to be successful. Or, in this case, the hammer and work boots. It takes work to ensure equity. We must commit to better understanding the barriers that exist so that we can remove them and create opportunity for all.

As an industry, we can create more opportunities for people of color, and for individuals in unfortunate circumstances who just need a chance to prove themselves. We can, and must, emphasize diversity, equity and inclusion. It just so happens the construction industry is poised to cultivate talent for present day and future generations to help make lasting change. So, how can we help those seeking opportunity make the right connections and learn that a fulfilling and satisfying career in construction awaits? How do we provide the scaffolding people need to enter our field?

One pathway is provided by Constructing Hope, a Portland-based nonprofit organization that breaks down barriers to getting into construction. According to Pat Daniels, executive director, Constructing Hope was originally offered to formerly incarcerated people “who are typically punished for the rest of their lives, long after serving time.” Catering exclusively to the low-income population, Constructing Hope primarily serves African American, Native American and Asian American adults. The organization provides three no-cost programs that prepare people for careers in construction and related fields:

  • Adult Construction Training Program – A 10-week construction skills and life skills pre-apprenticeship construction training program. After a pandemic-induced hiatus, this program is back on track with the Fall class set to begin in October. Classroom training will be handled virtually, and work skills will be learned on actual job sites with physical distancing measures in place.
  • Career Advancement Support Services – Services include three years of career placement in construction apprenticeships, pathway jobs that lead to apprenticeships, and other employment, along with mentorship and supportive services. Graduates secure good paying jobs in careers that can be mastered without a college degree.
  • Youth Summer Program – This five-week program teaches students ages 16-19 the skills they need to pursue a career in construction.

Constructing Hope was founded in 1995 and originally affiliated with and named after the Irvington Covenant Church on MLK. By 2010, the nonprofit branched out on its own, moved to its current location at 405 NE Church Street, and was aptly renamed Constructing Hope. In its 25 years, Constructing Hope has guided 1,290 adults and 111 youth to graduate from their respective programs, including 66 adult graduates in 2019 alone. 

Anyone in business appreciates that it’s the relationships we foster that create opportunities. Constructing Hope is no different. As Pat puts it, opportunities typically come to the Constructing Hope community through the “FBI – fathers, brothers and in-laws.” Two inspiring examples of people who have grown into construction careers through Constructing Hope include:

  • Raleigh Morrison – After 12 years of working at Home Depot, Raleigh was ready for an opportunity that would change his life and Constructing Hope provided that opportunity. He graduated from the pre-apprenticeship training in winter 2013, joined the Carpenters union, and is now a foreman with Turner Construction. Raleigh’s career pays a viable living wage and allows him to provide for his eight children. His success also inspired his two sons, Scott and Robert, to follow in his footsteps. Each went through Constructing Hope’s training program, and like their dad, are now also members of the Carpenters union. 
  • Anthony Williams – Prior to enrolling in Constructing Hope, Anthony, a single father of two, was working hard, but frustrated with his $13.50 per hour wage, which had only increased 50 cents in three years. He says, “Constructing Hope gave me an opportunity to actually have a chance at grasping what I’m looking for as a parent, and as an individual. The education and certifications received gave me the foundation needed to pursue a career as a heavy machine operator. I am proud to share that I am currently employed by Clark and Son’s Excavation and making $32.50/hour. That is a wage I can actually raise my family on.”

It is a point of pride at Mortenson that our team members are actively involved in community organizations. Our own Dewey Amos is a board member of Constructing Hope.

“We need more diversity in our industry, and Constructing Hope is making that happen while bridging gaps in equity and inclusion,” says Dewey. “Constructing Hope is building a positive community of individuals who are thriving in construction – people who hadn’t considered our field due to a cycle of low-income barriers and closed doors they had encountered earlier in their lives. It is incredibly gratifying to help people who look like me get into construction.”

If you’re inspired to support Constructing Hope, or another organization that helps provide opportunities for people who are socioeconomically disadvantaged, consider making a donation or volunteering. Invite your friends or colleagues to participate or contribute. If you meet someone who would benefit from Constructing Hope or another organization, give them the encouragement or resources they need to pursue their dream of getting into our field.

Let’s be honest about the barriers that have been upheld and help break those down once and for all. Barriers like education, training, tools, and even work boots. Let’s impress upon adults and children alike that construction is a field that anyone can pursue, regardless of the challenges they face, or have faced. As an industry, let’s do what we must to create the “we” that we want to be: diverse, equitable and inclusive.