Want diversity in construction? Hire union


By Don McIntosh

When it comes to getting Black, Hispanic, and women workers into high-wage construction careers, union apprenticeship programs in the Portland area are having much greater success than non-union programs. That’s the main finding of a newly released report by the University of Oregon Labor Education and Research Center (LERC).

Click to see the full report.

The study draws on data from the Apprenticeship and Training Division of the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) over the period 2011 to 2020. It focuses on the Portland metro area because the Metro regional government is looking at setting region-wide goals for recruiting more women workers and Black workers to the construction workforce. 

Altogether, 17,964 people were enrolled in Portland-area apprenticeship programs in the 2011-2020 time period—72% of them in one of 36 union programs, and 28% of then in one of 15 non-union programs. 

Of the apprentices overall, 74% were white, 15% Hispanic, 6% Black, 3% Native American, 2% Asian American, and less than 1% were Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander. That’s roughly comparable to the Portland area overall, except that Hispanics are over-represented in construction and Asians are underrepresented.

But the demographic differences between union and non-union programs were significant:

  • In the union programs 64% of apprentices were white men, 26% were men of color, 7% were white women, 2.5% were women of color. 
  • In the non-union programs 75% of apprentices were white men, 20% were men of color, 4% were white women, and 1.5% were women of color.

Looking at construction crafts where there were both union and non-union apprenticeship programs, the study found that women and minority apprentices were also more likely to complete an apprenticeship in the union programs. That was true of apprentices overall: Union programs had a 58% graduation rate, while non-union programs had a 36% graduation rate. And in all programs, men graduated at higher rates than women, and white workers at higher rates than non-white workers. Among women apprentices, 50% graduated from the union programs, compared to 29% in the non-union programs. Among people of color, 45% graduated from the union programs compared to 40% in the non-union programs.

The report comes at a moment when local governments are increasingly declaring a commitment to greater opportunities for Black workers in particular. Its policy implications are clear: Construction project owners that want to prioritize opportunity for Black workers will get the best results when they employ a union workforce.

The LERC study was constructed along the same lines as a similar statewide study LERC published in 2009, authored by Barbara Byrd. 

The new study was authored by Larissa Petrucci, who worked as a research assistant at LERC while she was earning her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Oregon. She’s now at the School of Labor and Employment Relations at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

READ: The full report


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