Connecting state and local government leaders
DOTs have often lagged when it comes to filling jobs with women and people of color. With a new emphasis on equity in the sector, there are signs that may finally be changing.
When Shawn Wilson started his tenure as the head of the state transportation agency in Louisiana, one of his new jobs was to sign off on a prestigious award for civil servants. But when he looked over the list of past honorees, Wilson said, they were “100% white and probably 95% male.”
“This building has about 30% African Americans,” Wilson, who is Black, recalls saying. “They have no one that reflects who they are. That’s a mirror. They don’t exist when you pass the mirror.”
“Until we find someone in this department [who reflects the department’s diversity], I don’t want to put any more names up,” he said.
The problem, he told Route Fifty later, is that people at the department had preconceived ideas of what an award winner would be, so they didn’t seriously consider qualified Black or women candidates. Once Wilson pointed that out, though, they found several worthy nominees who had been previously overlooked.
That kind of focus, with a clear goal in mind, has helped the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development offer more people who have traditionally been overlooked for state jobs, leadership posts and contracting business, Wilson said.
State transportation departments have long been dominated by white men, from construction zones to corner suites. But as the Biden administration makes racial justice a cornerstone of its rollout of the new federal infrastructure law, and as society demands more racial and gender diversity, those agencies are increasingly re-examining old practices to see how they can improve diversity in their workforce and the businesses they hire.
As a sign of the change within the transportation industry, Wilson is now president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the first Black person to hold that position. One of his top priorities is increasing diversity in state transportation agencies, a process that is underway in many states.
After the 2020 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, AASHTO passed a resolution stating that the organization and its members were committed to “advancing racial justice and incorporating equity, diversity, and inclusion in all aspects of transportation.” The resolution specifically mentioned increasing efforts to increase diversity in state workforces and their contractors.
Tunya Smith, the director of the Office of Civil Rights for the North Carolina Department of Transportation, said she’s noticed a shift in how agencies are handling issues of diversity, especially since Floyd's death. That’s true even for the North Carolina DOT, which other states have often looked to as a model for its outreach efforts.
“There has been a continuation, but it’s also been an acceleration in a positive way,” she said. “Leadership really understands the need for a workforce that represents our population as a whole.”
‘Somebody Else’s Problem’
Roger Millar, Washington state’s secretary of transportation, said that diversity was a back-burner issue when he first took over in 2016. Some agency leaders thought their hands were tied, because of ballot measures that limit attempts to address racial inequities. But there was also a bigger problem, he said
“There was no active problem with it. It was just like it was somebody else’s problem,” Millar, who is white, said in an interview. The agency would put goals in their contracts and leave it to contractors to figure out how to meet them. Other problems were left to the agency’s civil rights office.
“Washington state is a multicultural place. So that didn’t sit right to me. It didn’t sit right with the governor,” Millar said. “The governor [Jay Inslee] said we need to be inclusive in what we do, so this agency changed our strategic plan in that first year.”
When it came to hiring, Millar said gathering and sharing data helped spur improvements.
Hiring managers told him one of the biggest reasons they had not hired more women or people of color is because they didn’t get enough applications from those kinds of candidates from human resources.
That explanation fell apart quickly, Millar said. The data showed that about 40% of engineering applicants were women or people of color, and the candidates recommended by the HR department were also about 40% women or people of color. But only 10% of job offers went to women or people of color, and only 8% of people who accepted jobs were in those categories.
“It wasn’t availability. There was something else going on,” Millar said. The agency kept sharing the data with hiring managers. “Every time we do it, the numbers go up, because the hiring managers’ performance is being measured, and that works.”
In North Carolina, transportation department leaders looked at their diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in the wake of the Floyd killing and subsequent protests. Their top goal, they decided, was to focus on building and keeping a more diverse workforce among agency employees, Smith said
The agency developed surveys for employees and set up several focus groups. The transportation secretary reviewed all those responses personally and then worked with his management team to address some of the issues that they identified. The process allowed senior leaders concerns from women and minority women employees who didn’t normally share their stories, Smith said.
“Employees were emboldened, and they were more willing to share their experiences in the moment we were in,” she recalled. “That enabled us to put the stories on the table, but also put a face with the story.”
Since then, the agency has taken several steps to strengthen its diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. It assembled a DEI advisory group, hired communications and human resources staff focused on DEI efforts, and started increasing its visibility in traditionally underrepresented communities.
The agency already helped train people for careers in transportation using federal grants, but now it emphasizes that participants can get a job with the state, not just in the private sector.
It has stepped up its partnerships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities. With college and high school students, recruiters talk about the range of possibilities of jobs at the state DOT. The agency runs airports, railroads and ferry systems, along with highways. And recruiters point out that the agency does “cool” things like operating drones, using virtual reality and preparing the way for electric vehicles.
After a fire consumed a QVC distribution center in Rocky Mount in December and left 1,900 people without a job, the agency organized a recruitment fair at the local office of the Department of Motor Vehicles to hire 100 people. The agency helped displaced workers with their applications and other coaching related to their job search.
About 400 to 500 people showed up, and most of them were minorities, and a greater percentage than usual were women, Smith said.
“Our recruiter doesn’t just sit at a desk. We go out in the field,” she added.
The agency has tried to keep existing employees by offering flexible schedules for telework and stressing a work-life balance that is sometimes hard to find in other workplaces, Smith said.
But the agency has to keep making changes in response to the feedback it’s receiving, she added.
“Part of the early stages was getting buy-in and building the trust of the agency’s employees,” she said. “The employees were very clear [and asked]: Is this for the moment? Or are you really serious about making change?”
“So we knew to continue that trust, we needed to show action,” she said.
Broadening the Base of Contractors
Because state transportation departments hire private companies to do so much of their construction work, making sure those private contractors have diverse owners and workforces is also a major concern among transportation agencies.
Last year, several prominent figures in the transportation industry started an initiative to improve opportunities for people in historically underrepresented groups to secure transportation business.
Phillip Washington, the chief executive of Denver International Airport (and now the Biden administration nominee to become the head of the Federal Aviation Administration), partnered with John Porcari, who was a deputy secretary of transportation in the Obama administration, to launch the effort.
“The Equity in Infrastructure Project is singularly focused on taking the unprecedented opportunity of the bipartisan infrastructure law [to] bring generational wealth to historically underutilized businesses,” Porcari said.
The effort started with the Denver airport, regional transit agencies in Chicago and Philadelphia, the Port of Long Beach in California and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. So far, six state transportation departments have also signed onto the effort, Porcari said. (Only Louisiana, though, has publicly announced its participation, he added.)
Participating agencies are sharing ideas about how to encourage more diversity among transportation contractors, and what obstacles stand in the way.
“There are a lot of barriers for historically underutilized businesses that are subcontractors to become prime contractors,” Porcari said. Those can vary from high bonding and surety requirements to net wealth limitations on business owners that include the value of the owner’s home and haven’t changed in years.
When Porcari served as the transportation secretary in Maryland, he was able to increase participation by minority and women-owned businesses by offering reciprocity with other states for their certifications. “That lowers the barrier of entry for firms that can’t spend a lot of time and capital getting certified in every jurisdiction,” he explained.
In Washington state, Millar found that the transportation department did a far better job of using minority and women-owned businesses for work that involved federal money than it did when the projects were paid for by the state. Federal law requires states to use historically underrepresented businesses.
Still, Millar said Washington state’s goals were not ambitious enough when he started. The agency’s target was 11% of all contracts. After a study of local contractors, agency officials decided that should be more like 19%. (It now stands at a little more than 16%.)
Meanwhile, on state projects, the underutilized contractors initially made up about 3% of state business.
“There was no requirement, and my predecessors thought their hands were tied,” he said, referring to the anti-affirmative action ballot measures.
So far, Washington has improved that participation rate to about 10%, Millar said.
The agency has done it without explicitly using affirmative action goals, because it’s operating on a “roadmap” to increase participation rates using other strategies. Millar talked to contractors and pointed out that they were able to meet the federal goals on federal projects, but they weren’t hiring the same minority contractors for state work. When he suggested using numerical targets for state work, they objected and offered other approaches.
Now the state runs a mentorship program where existing contractors help small businesses learn the ropes for how to apply for state business. “These disadvantaged contractors, they know how to do the work. They don’t know how to do the paperwork,” Millar said.
That helped, but it wasn’t moving the needle fast enough, so now the state is requiring a portion of its contracting work to go to small businesses. They don’t necessarily have to be owned by women, veterans or members of minority communities.
“Disadvantaged businesses are by their very nature small businesses, so it’s a race- and gender-neutral goal, but the hope is that that’ll move our disadvantaged business numbers up to parity with what we get on the federal side,” Millar said.
If that doesn’t work, the state will turn to explicit goals for disadvantaged businesses, he said.
While the approach is not straightforward, it will help the state comply with the ballot measures and previous court decisions, outlining the circumstances in which state agencies can use goals explicitly tied to race and gender, Millar said.
In Louisiana, Wilson has increased his state’s goals for contracts going to underrepresented groups, as well. The agency hasn’t always met the higher numbers, but the goals have driven improvements, he said.
“The demographics of this country are changing, and we have to embrace those changes institutionally so that we can better serve our constituents,” Wilson said.
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.