Several programs exist to help minority contractors learn the business, win contracts and expand their companies.
But do the programs work? The Daily Reporter sought the opinions of four people tied to the programs.
“I would say they do work,” said Diane Chamness, a consultant who created and runs training programs for minority contractors. “They don’t work all of the time.”
The success or failure comes down to the people involved, she said. The programs need businesses willing to mentor minority firms, and minority firms committed to doing the work.
“There are some contractors out there who look at these programs as a pain in the butt,” said Chamness, who is president of the Milwaukee-based Chamness Group. “And there are minority and women contractors who look at them as an entitlement piece.”
When the programs work, they can establish minority-owned companies as players in the construction industry. As an example, she cited Gorman and Co.’s collaboration in 2004 with six minority contractors on the Majestic project in Milwaukee.
All six received experience, and Gorman worked with four of the companies on other jobs.
“A lot of people don’t know about the success stories,” Chamness said. “They hear about the negatives, but they’re not focused on the hundreds of people doing great things.”
Alfonso Gardner is known in Racine County for securing construction jobs for minority workers.
In 2003, he led efforts to pass the Racine First ordinance, which required contractors to use employees from Racine’s five poorest census tracts on city projects worth more than $200,000.
Five years later, he said he sees progress. But passing the ordinance was just a first step toward bringing jobs to poor neighborhoods.
Shortly after Racine First passed, contractors complained that there weren’t enough qualified workers in the target neighborhoods to meet the requirement.
Gardner worked with others to create the First Choice Pre-Apprenticeship program, which is now run by Ola Baiyewu. Last year, 35 people graduated, and 16 found work with construction or manufacturing firms.
“Until you have a program in place, they’ll say people aren’t trained,” Gardner said.
He added that if communities really want to see more minority workers and contractors on jobs, then the ordinances must be enforced. That means fining, or rejecting, companies that don’t follow inclusion laws.
“I’ve had to keep fighting and fighting to get a couple of people jobs,” Gardner said. “The question we’re asking is, ‘Why can’t we be included when our tax dollars are paying for these projects, too?’”
Milwaukee contractor Tony Arteaga has run Arteaga Construction Inc. for 15 years. He’s employed more than 100 people and has an annual average payroll of $4 million. He’s beyond the need for a mentor.
“We don’t need anyone to hold our hands,” he said. “Most of the general contractors who have utilized our services know our capabilities. We don’t rely on our certification. We rely on our experience and the guys in the field.”
By certification, Arteaga means designations like emerging business enterprise or minority business enterprise that are given to companies looking to get started in the construction business. Milwaukee ordinances require that 18 percent of all city contracts go to small, minority- or women-owned businesses. Companies that receive certain certifications can qualify for the mandated work.
Arteaga benefited from inclusion programs. His company was one of the six Gorman worked with on the Majestic. But, he added, the programs only work when they’re enforced.
“That’s a big ‘when,’” he said. “Many times, the city and the people who run the programs have a nice tendency of overlooking the requirements on certain jobs.”
The biggest problem, Arteaga said, are with “pass-throughs.” Contractors, he said, will hire a small firm with no experience or equipment to take on a job, and then use the contractor’s employees to do the work.
The small firm gets a few thousand dollars, and the contractor gets around a requirement to work with a minority— or woman-owned firm, he said.
When he first started, Arteaga said, he had to overcome the stigma that came with being an EBE firm.
“There’s a belief that you’re not capable of doing the work,” he said.
It’s so strong, Arteaga added, that some businesses wouldn’t get certified as an EBE or MBE because they don’t want clients thinking they can’t handle the work.
But the inclusion programs are valuable, he said, as long as concepts like pass-throughs are weeded out.
“You’ve got to get some teeth into the program,” Arteaga said. “If you’re not going to enforce it, why have it? Shut it down and save me as a taxpayer some money.”
The Emerging Contractor
At 54 years old, Arthur Cureton is running a general contracting company, enrolled in college and taking part in the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewer District’s contractor training program.
He wants the training and education to help him take his company, Community Development Contractors, to another level.
“We want to be a successful contractor who can empower my community and provide job security,” Cureton said.
Building is the easy part. He’s worked in construction since he was 18 years old and gone through several training programs, including an apprenticeship.
Management is tougher. As a contractor, he took jobs valued at less than $50,000, but he didn’t have the resources to take on larger projects.
He said he hopes MMSD’s training program helps overcome that obstacle.
At the same time, he’s enrolled in a college program to become more proficient using the Internet to run his business. He signed up for the classes after reading a story in The Daily Reporter about the West Allis Business Contractors Exchange closing because it didn’t offer digital project plans.
Cureton said if he is going to compete for jobs, his company needs to be online and capable of reading digital blueprints. That means more training and more work, but Cureton said he’s ready to do what’s needed.
“I’m very energetic,” he said. “I hang with my children and they’re in their 20s. They can’t keep up with pop.”