Study: Construction Projects Can Help Rebuild America's Shattered Middle Class

construction projects middle class jobsAs the ongoing Occupy Wall Street protests show, many in America's middle class are angry about the uneasy economic circumstances in which they find themselves. Most typical wage earners have endured decades of stagnant wages even as costs for food, health care, housing and college tuition have continued to rise.

In short, average Americans are feeling pinched and far less wealthy than they once did. But there is a way to help reinvigorate the middle class while also rebuilding the nation's failing infrastructure, a recently published study suggests, by seeking to include those who have been traditionally underrepresented in the construction industry.

That aim is being achieved in many places across the U.S. through what are known as community workforce agreements (CWAs), according to a study by Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations.

First put in force early last decade, CWAs are a form of project labor agreement (PLA) -- contracts that establish work rules on a project-by-project basis -- that have been used for decades by many governments. But CWAs go further, as principal researcher Maria Figueroa recently noted at a press conference in Manhattan, by targeting specific populations for employment on private- and public-sector construction projects.

"The findings of our study indicate that -- particularly since 2004 -- PLAs are becoming comprehensive in their scope," Figueroa said, adding that the most likely used workforce provisions include the training and hiring of veterans, minorities, women, low-income earners and local residents.

The Cornell study, which examined more than 185 project labor agreements across the country, revealed that CWAs are increasingly common and "impressively effective" in providing economic opportunities for targeted communities.

According to the findings, 97 percent of the PLAs examined contained community workforce provisions designed to open job opportunity doors and career training for residents in the communities where the construction projects take place.

"At a time when America faces the most severe jobs crisis that we've seen in many generations, CWAs may be in fact a very important instrument of public policy to generate high quality construction jobs, to create new career opportunities for economically disadvantaged population and to promote shared prosperity," said Marc Bayard, executive director of Cornell's Institute for Workers' Rights and Collective Representation, during the press conference.

Further, Bayard said, union-based apprenticeship programs, which are supported and sustained by collective bargaining, are "perhaps the most effective pathway out of poverty for urban youth."

In New York City, a program called Construction Skills works with 10 New York City high schools to identify students who would make good candidates as future electricians, roofers, plumbers and other trades workers. The program includes simulated construction-site experience, as well as "soft-skills" training to improve communication and problem solving.

Beshion Bailey (pictured) graduated from the Construction Skills program in 2008. A second-year apprentice with Plumbers Local 1 in New York City, the slim, cheerful 21-year-old says the pre-apprenticeship program has "been a real stepping stone" in helping him establish a lifelong, well-paying career.

Construction Skills has opened careers to more than 1,200 New York City public high school graduates who live in public housing and has also provided job opportunities for hundreds of returning military veterans, said Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York.

Beyond social benefits, supporters of PLAs say that the programs also save taxpayer money. Of the $6 billion that New York City is spending on public works projects through 2014, project labor agreements struck between local unions and the Bloomberg administration are saving taxpayers more than $300 million.

According to the study, such cost savings are chiefly achieved through the use of apprentice labor and standardized contract terms that stipulate work hours, paid holidays and overtime.

Advocates also say that PLAs are the only way for workers to ensure enforcement of their rights under the nation's labor laws without belonging to a union.

In their study, Cornell researchers found that PLAs with specific workforce mandates "can constitute an effective overarching framework for enforcing laws and regulations that promote equal employment and career opportunities for residents of low-income communities, women, minorities, and disadvantaged or at-risk populations."

Despite the social and cost-saving benefits that the study says PLAs are shown to provide, they remain controversial. Groups, such as the National Right To Work Legal Defense Foundation, which advocates for worker choice on whether to join a union or not, say such agreements essentially lock out nonunion contractors and trades workers.

The foundation opposes PLAs, it says on its website, because "they sacrifice employees' rights of free choice and forcibly impose unwanted union representation on employees," since hiring, even of nonunion labor, for these projects is typically done at the local union hall.

Further, the organization says, rather than saving taxpayer money, PLAs usually result in cost overruns and higher construction costs.

Still, Cornell researchers contend that their study shows that PLAs are a proven way to create demand for well-paying, middle-class jobs. And for workers such as Bailey, that's good news indeed.

Related video: Economist John Bishop of Cornell University's ILR School discusses the Obama jobs plan and the impact it would have on creating jobs.

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