Tuesday, December 9, 2008

MnDOT improves minority hiring record

The Minnesota Department of Transportation says so-called Disadvantaged Business Enterprises - women and minority-owned firms - did bridge work totaling fourteen percent of the price tag. MnDOT's goal was 10 percent. (MPR Photo/Dan Olson)

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MnDOT improves minority hiring record
by Dan Olson, Minnesota Public Radio
December 8, 2008

Women and minority owned companies had a bigger than expected pay day from the 35W bridge project.

St. Paul, Minn. — The Minnesota Department of Transportation says the hiring of so-called Disadvantaged Business Enterprises - women and minority owned firms - exceeded the agency's goal.

This is in sharp contrast to MnDOT's performance from years past when hiring fell far short of goals.

Hope Jensen, MnDOT's director of the office of Civil Rights said the bridge price tag is $233 million, and nearly $33 million of bridge construction money went to subcontracting companies owned by women and minorities.

Jensen said the value of the contracts exceeds the agency's goal.

Civil engineer Susan Rani
"We had a 10 percent goal. We are currently coming in at about 14 percent," she said.
Federal dollars accounted for a large portion of the bridge funding. Federal rules require that state agencies and the prime contractors they hire make a good faith effort to direct up to 10 percent of federal dollars to women and minority owned businesses or DBE's.

Jensen said Flatiron Manson, the prime bridge contractor, hired a total of 20 DBE's. Contracts ranged from a few thousand dollars for hauling services to $11 million for steel erection among other work performed.

"Everything from a janitorial contractor to excavating. We had quite a few design folks that did quite a bit of work over several million dollars worth of work," she said.

Minneapolis-based Rani Engineering did surveying and civil engineering design work worth $750,000. Founder and president Susan Rani said she and the other women and minority owned firms performed on a par with any other contractor on the bridge project.

Working on the bridge
"I think we've been given a chance to show that if a contractor can value the DBE's experience. . . We can add value to the final product and to the taxpayers of Minnesota," she says.

Rani is Asian American. She received a civil engineering degree from the University of Minnesota. Rani said she put herself through college on a work study program which included selling popcorn at Gopher football games at the old Memorial Stadium.

Rani said she started her company 15 years ago with start-up money raised by maxing out two personal credit cards.

Rani Engineering employs 17, and Susan Rani said about 2/3 of their work is based on their certification as a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise.

Rani said she still meets people who assume she's in business because she gets preferential treatment as a woman and a minority business owner rather than as a competitive bidder.

"'Oh you guys must be getting all these contracts because you're female and minority,' to which I told him that if we were that lucky, shouldn't there be more firms out there?" she said.
Lawsuits by white business owners have forced the federal and state governments to rewrite DBE rules.

The new rules do not set a quota or promise that women and minority owned companies will get a slice of federal contracting dollars.

MnDOT's office of Civil Rights director Hope Jensen said there are examples of prime contractors being given additional leeway if they can't find qualified women and minority owned firms.

"If the price is not competitive, if they don't have the equipment or if they don't have the capacity then we will look at that and see if we believe it was a legitimate and reasonable reason," she says.

MnDOT working with the 35W bridge project's prime contractor, Flatiron Manson, also points to partial success in another hiring category.

MnDOT hiring specialist Ashanti Payne said the goal was to have 11 percent of the bridge construction workers be people of color and six percent would be women.

"Flatiron achieved 14.7 percent minority employment...and they were about 3.4 percent for women employment," he said.

The numbers are welcome news for MnDOT. On several high profile projects in recent years, including the rebuilding of a stretch of 494 and construction of the Hiawatha light rail line, the agency fell well below women and minority hiring goals.

A study by outside consultants three years ago showed Minnesota had enough qualified women and people of color for the agency to do much better.

As a result MnDot for 2009 has set a higher goal. The agency will encourage contractors to direct up to 15 percent of the value of contracts awarded to them to businesses owned by women and minorities.




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