A small, leafy, liberal arts college for women in the suburbs of Boston seems an unlikely place to drive the transformation of the construction industry.

But on a sunny late-September afternoon, more than 100 leaders in the local construction industry gathered in an outdoor amphitheater on the Wellesley College campus to talk about ways to dramatically increase the participation of women and people of color in their workforce.

They were there at the invitation of Tim Singleton, the associate director of construction at Wellesley College, who has led a new way to approach diversity in construction. For the past three years, Singleton has been gathering “owners” — people who manage construction projects for institutions like the Harvard Business School and Northeastern University, as well as state agencies — to figure out ways to expand the universe of those who will participate in construction projects years from now. Because in Massachusetts and nationwide, women and people of color remain vastly underrepresented in the construction trades.

Singleton says the industry needs to go beyond state-mandated minority inclusion goals that, in his words, “don’t work.”

All public projects in the state — and many private ones as well — are assigned goals for including women and people of color and minority or women-owned businesses in design and construction. Gov. Charlie Baker set a goal for state agencies to spend 8% of their contract dollars with minority-owned firms. And in Boston, under an ordinance called the Boston Resident Jobs Policy, any major building project is required to employ a workforce that is 40% people of color and 12% women.

But these goals are essentially never met, as the GBH News Center for Investigative Reporting has documented over the past few years.

And Singleton says that even when those participation goals are met, it doesn’t necessarily mean that more women and people of color are being brought into the construction industry.

If a contractor deploys a workforce that is 20% women and people of color for a project at Wellesley, “did we increase the workforce availability of minority and women? No, we didn't,” Singleton told GBH News. “We took them from some other project and they came here. So now we're better and they're worse. That didn’t change anything.”

Since Singleton's first gathering of construction leaders in 2019, members of the group have begun adding language to their contract documents to require bidders to do more than just meet the workforce or subcontracting goals — though what that “more” is varies widely.

Northeastern University still requires contractors and design firms to make a good faith effort in meeting a 12% goal for including women-owned or minority-owned subcontractors in the project. But the university also now includes language in its contracts stating that, “All Bidders shall provide the University with a one-page statement highlighting actions taken by your firm to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

The university offers a broad range of examples of what it is looking for, including “assessments of firm’s practices with respect to pay and promotion" and "composition of firm staff, management, and leadership."

Rosanna Molinaro, director of contracting for Northeastern’s real estate and facilities unit, credits Singleton and Wellesley for convening the owners group to start looking beyond traditional hiring goals.

“There is a power in numbers here,” she said. “Working together as owners to make change by requiring it through our procurement and contracting process is helping to move the needle in a good way.”

Molinaro said in the past few years, she has noticed institutions looking at diversity and inclusion more broadly, and considering more than just whether they are meeting a percentage participation goal.

Cynthia Tsao, who created a Boston-area architecture, engineering and construction nonprofit called Building AEC Learning, said true inclusion requires leaders to go beyond thinking about construction as a project and instead think of it as part of building a community.

“We have been advocating for building equity, diversity, inclusion within the project teams,” she said. “But we absolutely should be thinking, ‘No it's not just that, but it's also how our projects impact the communities we are in.’”

Nick Haney, public coordination and initiatives director in the construction department at Massachusetts General Hospital, says working with other owners may help generate critical mass for broader workforce development and inclusion efforts.

“If we're all chasing the same scarce resources, that's not helping,” he said.

The Wellesley group offers owners a chance to compare notes and coordinate efforts, instad of competing for diverse staff.

Haney is working on a massive MGH construction project called the Cambridge Street Project that is slated to take eight years to complete and cost more than $2 billion. A project of that scope presents unique opportunities for workforce development, Haney said.

“You could do something with a youth engagement that gets a person interested in joining the building trades,” he said. “They could maybe enter the workforce and they could be promoted or onto a higher level of their career by the end of the eight-year project.”

Dakota Jones, a diversity consultant who helps construction firms focus on diversity — including helping them file workforce diversity reports under the Boston Resident Jobs Policy — says the Wellesley group should be applauded for beginning to look beyond goals and metrics that haven’t changed in decades. The city policy was established in 1985, and while the goals have increased since then, the structure of the policy hasn’t changed.

“There’s not much elsewhere I can think of that just measures the same thing” as it did 40 years ago, Jones said. “We're more sophisticated than we used to be. I would think that our measurables, our metrics are our [key performance indicators] ought to change to reflect that too.”

Jones points out that even if a company may not be in a position to hire new staff to increase the diversity of its workforce, it could do other things to encourage women and people of color to pursue construction careers — like inviting student groups to tour their sites or providing summer internships. Under current workforce inclusion rules, “If a subcontractor does all of those things, they get zero credit for it.”

A slender Black man in a zippered fleece speaks into a hand-held microphone and points while giving a presentation. He is standing in a grassy space surrounded by trees, with a board on an easel behind him listing the corporate sponsors of the event.
Tim Singleton, associate director of construction at Wellesley College, speaks to construction managers and experts he convened on campus Sept. 29, 2022, to discuss new ways to expand opportunities for women and people of color in construction.
Paul Singer GBH News

Singleton says the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office has made it clear that state agencies do have the legal authority to give credit for these efforts when reviewing bids for construction and design contracts. The attorney general's office confirmed this, pointing to state procurement lawas the authority.

It is clear that some state agencies have begun taking steps in this direction. Massachusetts Port Authority, the agency that runs Boston Logan International Airport and Worcester Regional Airport, has also been a participant in the Wellesley talks. The agency has adopted new language for its construction contracts, saying that bidders will be judged in part on “proposed approach to enhance diversity and inclusion of the project team to increase the pool of consultants working on the Authority’s projects.”

And Singleton says he is continuing to recruit state agencies to the effort to pursue “alternative DEI improvement efforts.”

Singleton admits that he doesn’t have data to prove this outreach works, and it is hard to set measurable goals for “workforce development.”

But, he adds, he has seen success by watching the reactions of schoolgirls visiting a campus construction site and looking at women wearing hard hats and carrying walkie-talkies.

“You'll see the look in their eyes, they go, ‘Whoa!’ And it’s not because they see a big excavator or something. But they see the people.” At that point, he said. “You know that all of a sudden, you've had an impact.”