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.

Next: 10 Best-Paid Skilled Labor Jobs

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Dude that makes a whole lot of sense man. WOw.

October 29 2011 at 3:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This is nothing more than the latest Ivy-league progressive eurosocialist elitest garbage. The real problem in our country is the brain-dead progressive eurosocialist marxist mindset that has prevailed in our major universities/colleges [particularly the ivy league] for the last 100 yrs and especially the last 50yrs. If an idea does not originate from within this braindead/braintrust, the eurosocialist elitests will reject it/demonize it [or, more properly, alinskyize it] , regardless of it's merits. Any idea or proposal must fit within their eurosocialist elitest ideology for it to be considered. Over the last 100+yrs european marxist/socialist ideology has been responsible [yes, nazis are socialists] for 2 world wars and for every major problem on our planet. Why would a politician or ideologue want a eurosocialist /marxist form of gov't? The answers are as old as humanity: CONTROL and POWER. Once the elitests snare the working class into their programs then they control them by dangling benefits before them. If the working class gets angry, the eurosocialist elitests will remove a few scapegoats from their gov't, villify and demonize them, enact a few relatively meaning less reforms and then declare that all is well in the workers paradise. How do I know this? by paying attention to the rest of the world and not just america. I don't expect you to believe me or trust me, but if you don't, please at least have the character/integrity to research this before you criticize my post.

October 27 2011 at 4:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
most omnipotent

Constructions jobs are not the answer. When the weather is bad or when the economy stalls, they are the first to be out of work. We need to go back to being a country that produces things and make sure to impose a tarriff on goods entering the country. I would buy American if I could, but everything I pick up states that it is from another country, no matter where I shop. Also, please stop saying that the rich create jobs! The middle class creates jobs when they spend money. The middle class far out numbers the rich and they are the consumers that drive the economy. The middle class is suffering right now and so they are not spending, that is the real reason the country is in the toliet. I know there will be those who argue that the rich have the businesses and they create jobs when they hire. Face it, basic economics is supply and demand. What rich person in their right mind would hire people because they received a tax break? People get hired when the demand of goods and services is increased, not when the rich get a tax break.

October 27 2011 at 6:48 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

it figures,,,,,,Everyone has a 300 page "IDEA".....keep it simple, short. The answer is to do away with the IRS, andt release nonviolent offenders

October 27 2011 at 6:32 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

"promote shared prosperity"? hmmmmm......and I thought that prosperity was the responsibility of the INDIVIDUAL........I must be an old fogy for having ideas like that......

October 27 2011 at 5:54 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

"promote shared prosperity"? hmmmmm......and I thought that prosperity was the responsibility of the INDIVIDUAL........I must be an old fogy for having ideas like that......

October 27 2011 at 5:53 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The two main problems with this type of program.Government paid or union jobs.And what is a large union other than a small government unto it's self.Promoting jobs,benefits for it's members only.Corruption in large unions is almost as bad,if not worse than it is in the government.
This plan would fit in perfectly with our current president.Government and or union jobs only.

October 27 2011 at 5:40 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Manufacturing. When people make something that can be sold to others, everyone benefits. That creates jobs. When most of the nation's wealth is controlled by a few insurance companies and a few financial institutions neither of which produce anything, it will be very difficult to create jobs within the borders of this nation. When corporations have no loyalty to the nation and export most of the jobs to the pool of labor that works cheapest, without regulation or safeguards, and distributes virtually all of the profits to high level managers and shareholders, then jobs won't return to America until labor here is driven to the poverty level. That scenario doesn't leave any room for a middle class.

October 27 2011 at 5:28 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

My steps for saving the middle class:

If you are on public assistance and can work, you should have to do public service to keep getting assistance.

Do something about the flow and hiring of illegal aliens in this country.

People need to stop voting for the same congressmen year after year, they have ruined this country.

Starting buying american made products.

If you lost your job, you may have to change caeers in order get back to work.

Stop depending on then government to fix our problems.

And most of all, stop voting for presidents that are not QUAILFIED..

October 27 2011 at 5:22 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

I think the government needs to provide an immediate, simple, no paperwork rescue plan to the middle class asap.

My idea is to provide a multiplier effect to the mortgage interest deduction so that any homeowner (many middle class) will get a much greater mortgage deduction (3X?) from their income taxes for continuing their ability to pay their monthly mortgage payments. This will motivate people to use any income available to make their payment in order to keep the roof over their heads due to the fact that each dollar of mortgage interest comes becomes a much bigger tax benefit. The banks are cut out of the equation (they have proven their own self serving nature in this economy), homeprices will stabilize, and people will begin to feel that their houses are worth staying in and keeping. The downside is the reduction in government income tax revenue, but the Fed won't have to keep bailing out the banks to prop up the economy. People may eventually begin to spend money again to fix up homes that they now intend to stay in. JJ

October 27 2011 at 4:58 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

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