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Effort to open avenues for BIPOC women in construction ramp up in Rochester

Program funded by $1 million grant and federal funds is expected to help overcome barriers to employment for group underrepresented in local construction efforts.

Career Pathways for Women
Fatuma Ahmed speaks during an event highlighting the Equity in Economic Development – Career Pathways for Women of Color program on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022, in downtown Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — Fatuma Ahmed said she gets excited when facing repair jobs in her home.

“I love to do hands-on work,” said the co-founder of Pamoja Women, a foundation created to amplify the voices of women and girls of East African heritage.

She said she’s not alone in seeking to take on tasks that some people think of as traditional male roles, whether around the home or in the workforce, and she hopes a new Rochester effort will inspire new directions for other women.

“We have so many women who think about doing that, so this gives them the opportunity for them to think about doing something, whether it’s plumbing, carpentry, painting or maybe a floor (installation) job,” she said of Equity in Economic Development-Career Pathways for Women of Color program, which is ramping up.

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Created through a process that included input from residents like Ahmed and local contractors who have cited a shortage of qualified workers, the program is being funded by a $1 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies and $750,000 in federal funds to help Black, Indigenous, and people of color — BIPOC — women find paths into construction and other careers tied to growth in Rochester.

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Planned efforts will focus on worksite inclusivity with local employers, training and post-secondary education programs and determining how to best introduce and support young women and girls interested in new career pathways.

Mayor Kim Norton, who spearheaded the grant effort, said the Destination Medical Center initiative is expected to generate 2,000 to 2,7000 new jobs a year tied to development, but the new jobs are not equitably distributed in the community.

Career Pathways for Women
Mayor Kim Norton speaks during an event highlighting the Equity in Economic Development – Career Pathways for Women of Color program on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022, in downtown Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

“Last year, less than 1% of the roughly 1,700 construction jobs in Rochester were filled by women of color,” she said. “That’s 13% of our population, but less than 1% in the industry.”

Patrick Seeb, DMC Economic Development Agency executive director, said equitable workforce goals have always been part of publicly funded DMC projects, but some of the priorities have started to shift.

“In the beginning, we had sort of a regulatory concept,” he said, pointing to efforts to ensure contractors and consultants included a specific percentage of BIPOC employees or subcontractors.

Now, he said the shift is to find ways to cultivate more local qualified businesses and workers, so outside contractors aren’t needed to meet state-mandated workforce requirements.

Norton said Monday that the first third of the Bloomberg grant was received last month, which has started the search for a program director through Workforce Development Inc.. The director and other Workforce Development staff will be funded through the grant, while working with city staff to meet program expectations.

Work is expected to coordinate efforts through Workforce Development, Intercultural Mutual Assistance Association, local contractors and unions, as well as a variety of other local agencies that can help connect potential employees with career opportunities.

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Cristina Cacciato, a member of the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Government Innovation Team visiting Rochester this week, said it’s an exciting initiative.

“All of us at Bloomberg Philanthropies are particularly excited about your idea to bring women of color into high-paying construction jobs by coordinating with contractors and facilitating training,” she said, pointing out that the idea that the city engaged residents and contractors to design the program caught the attention of contest judges.

Career Pathways for Women
People listen during an event highlighting the Equity in Economic Development – Career Pathways for Women of Color program on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022, in downtown Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

With 631 international applications, Rochester was among 15 grant recipients.

Norton said she feels the shared passion seen in working with contractors, women of color and other partners that helped design the program’s goals helped make the city’s application successful, but she said the partnerships created would have likely moved forward without the grant.

“There was so much commitment to this work, so we were going to stumble ahead,” she said.

The program to help specific residents find new careers in the city drew some heat during Norton’s recent bid for a second term as mayor, especially since it’s tied to a name associated with progressive politics, but the mayor said the work isn’t driven by Bloomberg Philanthropies.

“They don’t tell us what we have to do,” she said. “We tell them what we want to do, and they say ‘OK, we’ll help you do it.”

Additionally, she said creating local jobs and opportunities in the community will have benefits beyond the women who eventually participate in the program.

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“When this group wins, everyone in this community wins,” she said. “It is for everyone.”

Career Pathways for Women
Mayor Kim Norton speaks during an Equity in Economic Development – Career Pathways for Women of Color program on Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022, in downtown Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

Randy Petersen joined the Post Bulletin in 2014 and became the local government reporter in 2017. An Elkton native, he's worked for a variety of Midwest papers as reporter, photographer and editor since graduating from Winona State University in 1996. Readers can reach Randy at 507-285-7709 or rpetersen@postbulletin.com.
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