ST. LOUIS, MO. (KTVI) - Efforts to boost minority employment on the new Mississippi River bridge construction project are well ahead of federal goals. As of July, the Missouri and Illinois Transportation Departments report just under 23 percent of the total hours worked have gone to minority workers. Federal contracts set a goal of 14.7 percent.
"We realize that that's not high enough. And that's why we're striving to get it higher," said Jeff Church, the IDOT project implementation engineer. Both hours worked and numbers of minority and female workers are recorded.
Two years ago demonstrators demanding more minority jobs protested in East St. Louis where much of the bridge approach work was happening. A sluggish economy that kept trained construction workers out of jobs and a lack of training for large numbers of minority workers made reaching higher goals a challenge. Some unions have been reluctant to bring on new apprentices when their veteran members can't find work.
General contractor Geno Keeley said, "I think overall the industry has reacted well." He praised the pre-apprentice training program at Southwestern Illinois Community College that is producing up to 36 trainees a year.
The twelve week program financed by the state of Illinois introduces students to what to expect as a construction worker and helps participants polish their math skills.
Efforts to bring new workers into union apprentice programs have had some success. Some go on for further education. Others have found union or non-union construction jobs.
Teresa Foote of Cahokia took the SWIC pre-apprentice training in 2009 and joined the Laborers Union in 2010. "This is something I've always wanted to do. I love outside work," she said as she took a break from her job on one of the bridge approaches in East St. Louis. Over the past three years she has seen a growth in the numbers of minorities and women working in the construction field. But she agrees that union seniority does impact work assignments. Foote is now at the journeyman's level in the union. Her key to success: "If you are trying to reach a goal, you have to stay at it and go get it."
For more information on the bridge go to: www.newriverbridge.org.