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Marketplace

Finding local labor for public projects

Marketplace Contributor Aug 4, 2015
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A handful of major cities in the U.S. have decided that when local government pays for big construction projects, those projects should hire more local workers. This trend has faced fierce pushback from the construction industry, including in Nashville, where voters will decide whether to pass a so-called local hire amendment on Thursday.

At one large construction site in northeast Nashville, John Finch is taking me on a tour. He’s a co-founder of PBG Builders, a general contractor, and he says several dozen workers are here on any given day, employed by up to 25 subcontractors.

“We have one contractor doing the excavation work, another contractor do the paving work, another contractor doing the masonry work,” Finch says.

If Nashville’s local hire amendment passes, companies like his would have to make sure that 40 percent of the work hours on job sites go to Nashville, Davidson County, residents. This quota wouldn’t apply to all construction projects — only those that are funded by Metro government and cost more than $100,000.

We start walking around this site to take an unofficial poll.

“Just curious, where do y’all live?” Finch asks a few groups of workers.

“I live in Cheatham County,” one replies.

“I live in McMinnville.”

“In Nashville.”

“Two blocks down the road.”

We talk to several more, and by the end, about half of them do live in Nashville. But this isn’t typical, Finch says.

“If the job had been fully staffed during this walkthrough and interview, I really think you would have found 20, 25 percent of the total would be Davidson County,” he says.

And there’s already a worker shortage. “We all need good workers,” he says. “They’re not there.”

That’s not the perception of Roger Ligon Sr., who owns general contractor ICF Builders in Nashville and does support the amendment.

“There are people out here, especially black and brown people, that have pretty much given up,” he says. “They’ve applied and applied and applied and applied. I’m hoping that this amendment, if it passes, is a spark to them to say, ‘Hey, I can now get a job, because they’ve got to hire locally.’”

But Ligon runs a small shop — he employs about 20 people — and he acknowledges the concerns of big contractors.

”If I were their size, even though I look like me, I’d be against it because I’d feel like it was an impossible task for me,” he says.

In San Francisco, which instituted a mandatory local hire policy a few years ago, officials there seemed to recognize this burden on contractors. So the city spent around $4.5 million on finding and training local workers, and helping contractors find them, according to an official in the local hire office.

Nashville, however, hasn’t said yet if it’s willing to put in any funding if the amendment passes here.

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