The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners heard updates on the progress of the Construction Diversity and Equity Fund (CDEF) on Tuesday.
The fund, which the Board approved last spring, dedicates funding to help develop diversity in the local construction workforce — a workforce historically dominated by men. The fund also provides technical assistance, mentoring and training for state-certified small businesses in Multnomah County.
Overall, the fund aims to increase opportunities for women, minorities, veterans and people with disabilities, while also addressing a shortage of workers in the trades.
“I’m really proud that we have become a leader in building equity through our construction projects and that our procurement office is being noticed for the great things they’re doing as well,” said Chair Deborah Kafoury.
Brian Smith, Manager for the County’s Central Purchasing Department, and Lee Fleming, the County’s Supplier and Diversity Officer, shared important updates on the program’s design and the community feedback that helps guide it. The fund will be administered by Central Purchasing and is set for full implementation this July.
The fund is supported through 1-percent of actual construction costs on new County projects over $1 million and 1-percent of County remodels over $200,000, Smith said. It’s also bolstered by liquidated damages (fines) levied against contractors who do not meet their contractually agreed upon apprenticeship and diversity goals. Assessments are made on projects that were completed in the previous fiscal year.
“If the world works perfectly, our intent is not to have any liquidated damages because that means people are actually fulfilling their contractual obligation,” said Smith.
Specifically, the program will help support three initiatives: pre-apprenticeship programs, as well as workforce support services and retention programs; and technical assistance, mentoring and training for firms certified by the Certification Office for Business Inclusion and Diversity.
Pathways to the profession
Fleming walked the Board of Commissioners through the path to become a certified construction tradesperson.
Pre-apprenticeship programs are typically 8-12 weeks, and serve as the incubator to help expose a student to construction in general, Fleming said. Afterward, that student applies to an apprenticeship program, which allows employees to be paid to be trained in the trades.
Currently, in the Portland metro area, the state labor bureau offers six primary pre-apprenticeship programs focused on construction. The County partners with most of them, including Oregon Tradeswomen, Constructing Hope and Portland Youth Builders through the Courthouse and Health Department Headquarters construction projects. The County also partners with Portland Opportunities Industrial Center (POIC).
“Through these approved programs, we will support a pipeline of future tradespersons on County construction projects and have an impact on the regional shortage that’s coming toward us,” Fleming said. “Pre-apprenticeships provide opportunities for folks at various levels. This will positively impact and supplement the pipeline of workers for this region and also provides opportunities for folks to build their own businesses.”
Apprenticeship programs last two to four years. As apprentices’ skills increase, the pay can increase, Fleming said. But apprentices can face challenges like child care and transportation costs that can lead them to leave the profession, he continued.
The County’s diversity fund will provide support to address some of these challenges, Fleming said.
More than 1,200 firms out of the roughly 3,500 certified by the State Certification Office for Business Inclusion and Diversity (COBID) are headquartered in Multnomah County.
“Our experience has shown that even on our projects many small businesses need care and support in the form of mentoring on projects and providing technical training,” said Fleming.
The County’s diversity fund will provide that support for businesses, and also offer guidance from other programs throughout the state and region, such as the Port of Portland’s mentor-protege program.
Smith stressed the diversity fund works in tandem with other construction diversity efforts by the city of Portland, the Port of Portland and Metro’s Construction Careers Pathway Project or C2P2.
“We didn’t want to supplant that,” said Smith. “We wanted to make sure that we were staying consistent with the direction that that group is going. Because ultimately while this is the County’s program, it impacts the employees and businesses that serve the entire region.”
Periodic outcome reports from service providers, as well as annual reporting, will demonstrate the fund’s effectiveness, Smith said.
“I’m glad to hear that there’s a lot of coordination,” Chair Kafoury said, noting that funding can fluctuate based on construction activity. “If we can work together in coordination and cooperation with our other jurisdictional partners, we can get more bang for our buck.”
The fund is co-sponsored by Chair Kafoury and Commissioner Lori Stegmann.
“It’s so amazing that government can take a leadership role,” said Stegmann “ …. and really resulting in people getting family wage jobs.”
“We have the ability to do some really good work in our community,” Kafoury echoed.