Project labor agreements (PLAs) that include community workforce provisions—including targeted hiring programs and apprenticeship-use requirements—are a functional tool to generate and ensure fair access to middle-class careers in the construction industry. These tools, called community workforce agreements (CWAs), are becoming increasingly common and appear to be an effective way to promote social investment and to create career opportunities for economically disadvantaged populations. More elected officials, private construction users, contractors and developers, building trades unions and community leaders should consider using these agreements, which clearly serve a public good.
Cornell University's ILR School recently conducted the first national study of PLAs and CWAs that reviewed the characteristics of these agreements, evaluated the nature and extent of their use and revealed their potential value to low-income communities. Previous research has extensively documented the benefits of PLAs in relation to cost efficiencies, workplace safety and dispute resolution. Our research focused on how CWAs provide social and economic benefits to women, minorities and poor and at-risk residents. For those committed to promoting fair and equitable access to lifetime careers in the unionized construction industry, CWAs represent a potentially powerful tool.
Our report profiles a range of CWAs that have been implemented in the past 15 years. We examined the content of 185 PLAs that have been administered by about 70 building and construction trades councils. We also distributed a written survey to more than 300 building trades councils. We received 45 completed questionnaires, representing a statistically significant 15% response rate and a broad cross section of councils in terms of size and geography, and we analyzed the results. We also conducted three cases studies of CWA implementation.
We found that more than 100 of the PLAs studied incorporated various types of CWAs, with the most common provisions involving the hiring of local residents and use of registered apprentices. Also, to promote the entry of veterans into the construction industry, 139 PLAs included "Helmets-to-Hardhats" provisions; and 45 PLAs provided employment and career opportunities for economically disadvantaged populations.
A majority (103) of the PLAs studied contained provisions for preferential hiring of women and minorities. Nearly half of these (50) required compliance with hiring ratios that were delineated in local codes, bid specifications and other binding agreements. On closer examination, we concluded that even in cases where the needs of disadvantaged or minority workers were not explicitly addressed, local hiring requirements often covered these populations.
We also found that CWAs have become more common and are included in more PLAs since 2004.
Like other researchers, we found that the main challenges to CWAs relate to their successful implementation. The three case examples we examined suggest ways to enhance effective implementation by, for example, engaging community organizations and pre-apprenticeship programs to help recruit and prepare individuals for entry into and successful completion of union-based apprenticeship programs. Other recommendations include formulation of targeted hiring to fit the characteristics of the local labor market as well as rigorous monitoring and compliance.
Additional research is needed across a longer time-frame than our project allowed. The ultimate test of CWAs is whether they create new career pathways for underrepresented populations, improve retention of new workers in the construction industry and deliver social and economic benefits to targeted communities. As we await the results of longitudinal studies to further examine these measures of success, we strongly encourage construction industry leaders and users to continue to expand the use of CWAs. They are clearly in the public interest.
Jeff Grabelsky, director, construction industry program, Maria Figueroa, director, labor and industry research, both at Cornell University ILR School, and Ryan Lamare, research associate, Cornell ILR's Scheinman Institute.