The Trouble With Transportation Jobs

Obama says that infrastructure jobs will lift up the unemployed, but do they leave blacks behind?

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For their part, FHWA officials say they lack the resources to provide oversight over state efforts. According to the Government Accountability Office report, the agency's office of civil rights has only one full-time employee, who oversees both on-the-job training and their support programs. Furthermore, federal officials say that they place higher priority on the other civil rights programs for which they're responsible, such as the Disadvantaged Business Enterprise program, designed to ensure equitable administration of transportation contracts; and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, prohibiting discrimination in programs that receive federal assistance.

Where It's Working

As for the states that have strongly utilized on-the-job training for minority and women workers, "What's happening there is that officials in the state transportation departments' civil rights offices, combined with outside pressure from community organizers, have found innovative solutions," said Barrett.

One prime example is the Missouri model, which sets strict on-the-job training goals for specific transportation projects, and has a community-partnering agreement that draws on input from local stakeholders to ensure accountability and transparency.

Jontell Jones, a quality-control manager for highway projects in Kansas City, Mo., enrolled in a yearlong training program in 2008. Jones gained hands-on experience working on a bridge with eight other program participants, mostly African Americans. He'd heard about the training through radio ads and flyers posted around the city.

"After I finished the program, I had job offers from everywhere," Jones, who is also earning a degree in construction management, told The Root. "You can have a secure future in construction because our roads and bridges always need work, and you can build your career by working your way up. I'd advise people to ask their local employment agencies or departments of transportation about available training programs in their cities."

In lieu of upgrades being made to current transportation legislation, Barrett is at least encouraged by the soon-to-be-deconstructed American Jobs Act's inclusion of $50 million specifically reserved for transportation-related job training for minorities, women and low-income workers.

"I think there's a lot [the Obama administration] could do to strengthen the programs, but this is a huge step forward," she said. "They're not just saying, 'Take the money that we've already given you, and make it go further.' They're actually proposing extra money to fund the programs. That's a very strong signal that they're going to take job access more seriously."

Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.

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