Some of the money set aside for the Mercer Corridor Project [in Seattle] comes from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, aka the “stimulus package” President Obama signed into law in early 2009. As stipulated by federal requirements, the city must set aside a certain amount of work for disadvantaged business enterprises (DBEs)–these are businesses owned and operated by women or minorities–and certified by the state’s Office of Minority and Women’s Business Enterprises.
The state DOT says, “The purpose of the MWBE program is to provide maximum practicable opportunity for firms owned and operated by minorities and women in public works projects and procurement.”
The city of Seattle recently hosted a pre-bid meeting to let contractors and subcontractors know how to comply with training requirements for minority apprentices. Apparently the current system is complex enough to merit extra explanatory meetings. On the PowerPoint presentation (slide 7) is the bullet point telling interested subcontractors that they “Must use under represented groups–No white males w/o WSDOT approval and extensive good faith effort documentation.” MercerCSDPreBidPresentation 7
So what does this really mean? Could the city of Seattle really be telling contractors and subcontractors bidding for work on this project that no white males need apply?
Fortunately, the answer is no; but the City sure has a funny way of putting things. Turns out that both federal and state laws require outreach for DBEs on public projects. These programs are to ensure that DBEs get a shot at doing lucrative business with government entities. The phrase “no white males” is actually hinting at a federal training program requirement. The Federal Highway Administration has apprenticeship programs set aside for minority workers. It is possible for non-minority workers to get into these apprenticeship programs, but they need a special waver. This is what the PowerPoint slide refers to: no white males in these apprenticeships programs unless they’ve already received the official exemption.
When you add up the cost of compliance with some of these well-meaning rules, are the benefits outweighed by the costs? What does it say when small businesses in the construction industry (the two worst combinations of business classifications during this recession) feel like they are unable to compete for public works projects based on racial preferences?