Construction continues at the new Crown Center, where local hiring was below expectations.                                                                               RoundTable photo

Bulley & Andrews, the City’s general contractor on the Robert Crown Community Center project, has had some occasional successes meeting the City’s job goals for minority and resident hiring on the $53 million project.

The firm, through their electrical subcontractor, had tracked down one available electrician through another firm and arranged for him to start work on the project’s interior work.

Similarly, the same happened with a fourth-year apprentice plumber with whom Bulley & Andrews’s plumbing subcontractor made contact, said Joel Klahn, company representative in a report at the July 8  City Council Administration & Public Works Committee meeting.

Overall, though, as the company heads into the final six months of construction on the main building at Main Street and Dodge Avenue, its hiring of local residents is lagging well behind the City job goals.

As of the end of June, the firm showed Evanston resident work hours on site at 6% compared to the 15% goal set by the City.

The number has fluctuated, but currently stands at 7 as the number of residents employed on the project.

The firm showed more success on the Minority-, Women- and Evanston-Based Enterprises (MWEBE): 20.9%, for minority-owned, women-owned  and Evanston-based business participation, though still falling short of the 25% figure the City and contractor had set, Mr. Klahn said.

In that area, the firm, working with Sharon Johnson, the  City’s Business Diversity Compliance Officer, is subcontracting with 10 women-owned businesses and nine minority firms, he said.

Summing up the figures, Mr. Klahn told aldermen, “One of the things we learned over the course of the project to date is that we have some unanticipated challenges to meeting compliance.”

Mr. Klahn said one of the biggest problems is a dearth of residents who are union members, a precondition to getting jobs on projects of Crown’s scope involving subcontractors representing the different trades.

“We found out that over the course of time, our pre-construction and construction phase,” Mr. Klahn told aldermen, “that of 13 different unions we reached out to, seven have no workers that reside in Evanston; two of the unions report only having one worker residing in Evanston. So that represents one of the challenges we’ve had in hitting that 15% and drives our discovery of a more limited labor pool of Evanston residents than we understood there was before.”

Those figures were “not okay,” said Ald. Robin Rue Simmons, 5th Ward, speaking after Mr. Klahn’s presentation. Ald. Simmons wanted to hear more about what Bulley & Andrews planned to do to meet the 15% minimum goal.

“I need a guarantee to 15%,” she said. “I was really hopeful in supporting this project that we exceed our goals for local employment as well as MWEBE, and that we’re in single digits is not okay. Last I checked, we had spent $17 million [now $21 million, staff reported] … and 6% has gone to our local work force, 20% percent to Women-owned, Minority-owned and Evanston-Based Enterprises.

“When you took this project, you were aware of our goals and also our ordinance,” continued Ald. Simmons, “and it’s my opinion you should have vetted our work force and your scope to make sure you could comply with our goals. I’m not okay spending the amount of money we are spending and our local work force is not working,” said Ald. Simmons. “I don’t know how I make this ask,” she said, “but until we have a proposal or report that shows a path forward to a minimum of 15%, I don’t want any more work done at Robert Crown.”

Pressed if he could provide such a report, Mr. Klahn said, similar to what he told the City’s M/W/EBE Committee in January, he could not.

“Part of the problem is the work force doesn’t exist in Evanston on a union project,” he said. “There are seven unions that have zero residents – that is the Cement Basin, the Ironworkers, the Pipefitters, the Sheet Metal Workers, the Sprinkler Fitters, the Terrazzo Workers and Glazers. In total that could be as much as 40% to 50% of the project.”

As for vetting beforehand, “we could not investigate prior to closing [on an agreement with the City] because the unions would not talk to us until [the job] had been awarded to a union contractor. In fact, a number of these unions won’t talk to us directly, and we have to work through our subcontractors” for access to work pools. “So we’re working within the context of the rules we have to play by.”
Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward, who sits on the City’s M/W/EBE Committee with Ald. Simmons, suggested there may be a few factors at play behind the low figures.

With the economy in an upswing, “there are a lot of projects, and the good thing is people are working. The program is working in that sense. Two or three years ago we had 34 laborers looking and now they’re all employed,” he said.

In addition, he noted, that there will be employment opportunities beyond the completion of the main building in December. The project will then turn to the demolition of the current Robert Crown building and construction of a parking lot and turf fields on that site.
At this point, Ald. Braithwaite said, the contractor should be providing job descriptions for employable positions in that phase – “what are those positions, how many, what are the qualifications?
Because in the absence of such information it’s just empty [talk],” the alderman said.

Several officials also suggested the current job market may be a factor in the company’s lower-than-expected response. With unemployment in Evanston at an historic low, said Assistant  City Manager Erika Storlie, people may be holding onto jobs paying lower wages and “reluctant to cut away from that existing job to come and train on this job,” with the Robert Crown project.

Ald. Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, suggested that the City’s focus should go beyond Bulley & Andrews. “I think it’s important that we all have our opinions on this, but I think to blame Bulley & Andrews is not the way to be going,” she said.

The City itself has a number of programs that deal with workforce development, including the Mayor’s job program, that have to do with workforce development, she noted, addressing issues such as Bulley & Andrews is encountering.

“We are in the beginning stages to develop people to be in the work force,” she said, “and it may be that people that we’re working with now just aren’t quite ready to be at that high level to get into a training program for a union card. That doesn’t mean we’re not working on it. And I think to shut down a project like this because we’re upset that they’re not there …

“What about our M/W/EBE program?” she asked. “Are we filtering people into Bulley & Andrews? What are we doing there? What about the lists we have? Where is that list, what’s going on with those people on that list? I expect the people on the M/W/EBE Committee to know exactly who is on the list and who is being sent over to the programs.”

A few weeks ago, the  City approved a four-month contract for $20,000 for handyman services. The City sent out requests to 20 contractors, asking them to apply, the alderman pointed out. “Not one responded. You need people to respond,” Ald. Rainey said. “You can’t make people apply. I’m not sure we should be beating up Bulley & Andrews on this. …”

Ald. Simmons said her intention was not to “beat up” Bulley & Andrews. Rather, “I think that this discussion has to be had publicly so that everyone who has a role can be accountable – whether it’s workforce development or outreach … what sort of effort has been made to get the information out there.

“Yes, unemployment is better,” she said, “but there are certain communities where unemployment is not. So I’m just trying to push everyone here for us to do better. I mean we have a real opportunity to get folks working; we’re spending so much money, I’m not okay to say, ‘Oh, you know labor, it’s fine and we couldn’t” meet our goals.

Ms. Storlie maintained that is neither Bulley & Andrews nor the City’s attitude.

“Having worked with Bulley & Andrews for the past year-and-a-half, we talk about this every single week,” she told aldermen. Bulley & Andrews is willing to sponsor people who would be interested in obtaining a union card, Ms. Storlie said.

Looking ahead, Ms. Storlie noted that the project won’t be completed until next July, with demolition of the existing building and installation of a new parking lot and turf fields planned for the later stage.

So there are still “opportunities,” she told aldermen. “The goal of 15% is something we would strive for, absolutely. The barriers to them getting there? Simply, the people do not exist and if they were, they did, they [Bulley & Andrews] would be hiring them.”

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.