March 28, 2002

A lesson in constructive diversity

  • Minorities and women learn the ropes from Ruby Jones
    Special to the Journal

    Ruby Jones knew by age 13 she wanted a career in construction.


    Her vision turned concrete during family visits to Waco, Texas, when she saw several homes her uncle built from scratch.

    “It was fascinating how he put his ideas into place,” Jones said of her uncle, one of Waco’s first black general contractors. “Houses have always intrigued me. As far back as seventh grade, I was drawing the floor plans for houses.”

    But Jones couldn’t have foreseen her formal start in the industry.

    She was working as a bookkeeper for a Seattle not-for-profit in 1971 when she saw an ad for a similar job with Central Contractors Association. Her job was in health care at the time, not her chosen field. As an office manager for this agency, Jones would organize documents, streamline business plans and, most important, help minority contractors compete.

    Affirmative Action had yet to arrive. The “good ole boy” network still ruled the construction industry, and dire circumstances deserved drastic measures.

    “We were still going through the era where we didn’t get work on any of the jobs. There were no women on the job. The workforce didn’t represent anyone of color,” Jones recalled.

    Jones now chairs the diversity committee for Associated General Contractors of Washington and helps run Turner Construction Co.’s School of Construction Management.

    The annual program, created by Turner and co-sponsored last year by the AGC and the city of Tacoma, teaches women and minorities how to manage profitable construction firms.

    It stems from Turner’s Washington State Football/Soccer Stadium and Exhibition Center project. As general contractor, Turner adopted King County’s goals for participation of women- and minority-owned businesses and workforce diversity among subcontractors.

    Turner hired Jones as the stadium project’s diversity program manager in 1998. Turner also had her launch its construction management program, an outgrowth of a national initiative the company started two years ago in Cleveland.

    “They’re usually really good at what they do,” the Seattle native said of those who take part in the seven-week programs, which are free for women and minorities. “But in most cases, they lack the management skills needed to be competitive.”

    The Urban League of Seattle-King County has looked to Turner as it tries to develop a model to ensure equal opportunity on public works projects such as Seattle’s City Hall and Justice Center.

    Urban League Director James Kelly said firms must struggle to keep rosters that reflect their communities, especially since Washington passed Initiative 200 three years ago, prohibiting use of race and gender in hiring decisions.

    To compete with other subcontractors for work on large private and public works projects, women- and minority-owned businesses need strong relationships with major contractors, which Kelly said is a key element of the Turner program.

    “You have to make sure everyone has an opportunity. You need that now more than ever. You have to constantly remind people,” Kelly said.

    “It’s easy to resort to the old patterns and only work with people you’re comfortable with. From time to time, you need to have a conversation, and it’s important to have everyone at the table — owners, trades, labor, women, minorities. Everyone needs to work through the issues.”

    Roland Dewhurst, CEO of AGC, said I-200 wasn’t crafted with the construction industry in mind — and the association didn’t support the state initiative.

    Dewhurst hopes the organization’s diversity committee will connect AGC with a community and culture it hasn’t been involved with historically.

    “The barriers are people’s perceptions of one another. A lot of people still perceive the AGC as what it used to be. That reality is changing,” Dewhurst said.

    But AGC’s diversity committee remains important. “All systems want to go back to the way they were. It’s human nature,” he said.

    At the CCA, part of the National Association of Minority Contractors, Jones worked with more than 50 minority-owned businesses from Seattle and Tacoma. The office was dark, she recalled, littered with cigarette butts and empty beer cans. It had no filing system to speak of.

    Jones made lists of contractors and public offices and prepared contractors for bids — or, as she put it, “I whipped that place into shape.”

    Having studied accounting at the University of Washington, Jones left CCA for a job with a Bellevue property management firm. Before Turner called, she’d earned a real estate license, become a broker, and worked as an independent consultant to minority- and women-owned businesses.

    One of 12 siblings raised by a single mom in Seattle’s Central neighborhood, Jones said her continuing challenge is to help minorities and women market themselves and win bidding contests as they continue to recover from — and move beyond — I-200.

    “Not everyone wants to do the right thing, unfortunately. It’s not a perfect world. It takes time to get the doors all the way open,” Jones said.

    But it’s easier than before.

    “Now you have more sophisticated owners who are about doing the right thing,” she said. “The industry has changed. The difference now is, ‘We’re here, deal with it.’ “

    Ari Kramer is a Seattle-based freelance writer.

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