Chauntee McDonald walks briskly through Terminal 1 at O’Hare International Airport. She points out the new glass panels on the Helmut Jahn-designed roof and the exposed HVAC systems that she and the team at Power Construction are working to replace.
“It feels rewarding — those long days and long hours are worth it,” said McDonald, a union laborer journeywoman with Power Construction. She said she particularly enjoys working with her hands, as well helping to build things that will stand the test of time.
“Construction is fun,” she said. “I like the physical aspect of it. It’s different pretty much every day. And just being a part of change and the historical aspect of it, too.”
As a Black woman, McDonald represents two groups that are underrepresented in her industry, which has long been dominated by white, male workers. In the Chicago area, about 8% of construction workers are Black, and less than 5% are women, according to one report. Sources say those numbers have stayed stagnant for decades.
With President Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill — signed into law in November — promising to bring scores of new construction jobs in the coming years, McDonald and others are hoping for a reshaping of the construction industry.
“This is generational changing investments,” said Manny Rodriguez, executive director of Revolution Workshop, a pre-apprenticeship carpentry training program on Chicago’s West Side. “We’re coming out of a pandemic, and we had the George Floyd incident and the racial reckoning that our entire country had to face. If we cannot figure out how to make construction more equitable now, we will never figure it out.”
Rodriguez said the billions of dollars potentially coming to Illinois for roads, bridges, rails and airports will also include money for training new workers. The infrastructure bill sets aside nearly $3 billion for apprenticeship programs across the country, with a focus on recruiting workers who traditionally face barriers to employment.
Some of those obstacles are the trade unions Rodriguez calls “bad players” engaging in nepotism and “a couple of other -isms.”
“I understand wanting to have some exclusivity into your group,” Rodriguez added, “but what that has turned out to be is just a very lopsided system, and when you look at the demographics, that’s what pans out.”
Another barrier for Black workers seeking construction jobs is a lack of awareness about the industry — starting with the education system.
“We [as a society] lied to two generations of kids; we said that college is the only way,” Rodriguez said. “We forgot that what created the middle class in this country was not Wall Street, and it wasn’t white-collar jobs. It was blue-collar jobs … construction and manufacturing jobs in the ’50s.”
For workers who have been unemployed for long periods of time, Rodriguez’s Revolution Workshop and other pre-apprenticeship programs also teach “soft skills” — stressing the importance of attendance, good communication skills, and a positive attitude.
Nate Sharpe is an alum of Revolution Workshop. He said most of the construction workers he encounters have been “born up into” the industry. Those who don’t have generational ties to it, Sharpe said, are missing out on a well-paying field.
“A lot of people don’t know about this type of stuff,” Sharpe said. “A lot of Black men, they don’t know about this. They’re not exposed to this. They don’t know about being in a union trade and stuff like that.”
Sharpe, who is Black, said he wishes more Black workers could have access to apprenticeship programs that quickly allow for family-sustaining wages.
“The pay is good,” he said. “If you stick with your trade — as you become a second-year, third-year, fourth-year apprentice and become a journeyman — you will be able to feed your family.”
The jobs and training that the infrastructure bill promises to bring to Illinois come at a key moment for women, too, according to industry experts.
Lauren Sugerman, the national policy director for Chicago Women in Trades (CWIT), said the pandemic has created what she calls a “she-cession.”
“We’ve seen a huge transition in the workforce, and many of the jobs that women have traditionally been dominant in — which don’t pay very high wages — have been the same service jobs that were most lost during the pandemic,” Sugerman said.
She added that while now is the perfect opportunity for more women to get involved in the trades, there are challenges they need to overcome that are unique to female workers, including biased hiring processes, sexual harassment, deliberately inadequate training, and even a lack of appropriate bathroom accommodations at job sites.
Sugerman, an elevator constructor who started in the field in the early 1980s, said she experienced most of the same issues decades ago.
“My own example from 40 years ago, I hate to say, is still the experience of many women,” she said.
Groups like CWIT and Revolution Workshop are hoping there will be a shift in the industry in the next few years, and they hope unions and municipalities will do their part to make the construction field more equitable.
CWIT and Revolution recently teamed up to draft a set of Construction Workforce Equity recommendations for Chicago’s government officials. The letter — which called on the city to improve access to union apprenticeships for women and people of color and to ensure equity and safety on job sites, among other recommendations — was signed by 42 Chicago aldermen.
McDonald, the laborer journeywoman with Power Construction, said as infrastructure projects ramp up in the coming years, construction companies should also commit to making their industry more inclusive and fair.
She said her current employer is a good example of a company taking diversity and inclusion seriously.
“Companywide, they have those conversations from the top, and they trickle down to the bottom,” McDonald said. For example, she said, Power offers trainings for unconscious bias, where attendees talk openly about race and gender and participate in interactive workshops.
McDonald, who now has seven years of construction experience under her belt, said she sees signs of progress.
“Previously, I probably may have been the only woman on the job site; I may have been the only Black woman at some point in my career,” she said.
Now, she sees a handful of others like herself on the job.
“Things are changing, and they need to continue to change,” she said.
Esther Yoon-Ji Kang is a reporter for WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @estheryjkang.