Black Americans have contributed to the foundation and framework of how we live, work, and play, but often, those stories go unreported and unnoticed. Black History Month presents an opportunity to elevate the voices and stories of Black Americans who have shaped the construction industry and celebrate their impact.
From highly useful inventions created and patented by Black Americans – like refrigerated delivery trucks, automatic elevators doors and the central heating furnace – to today’s construction leaders making an impact each day, there is a lot to celebrate.
Throughout the month, AGC of California will celebrate and highlight the work and stories of past, present, and future Black Americans shaping the construction industry. We will continue to add to this roster of impactful individuals throughout the month of February.
Past Black Leaders in Construction
Alice Parker, revolutionary and inventor
In 1919, Howard University graduate Alice Parker came up with a better heating solution in the form of a gas furnace. One hundred years later, the National Society of Black Physicists honored Parker, calling her heating solution a “revolutionary idea” which they noted “paved the way for central heating systems.”
Jones held 61 patents, according to Wikipedia, including one he received in 1940 for a portable air-cooling unit for trucks. This proved particularly useful preserving blood, medicine and food for use at Army hospitals during World War II. Portable x-ray machines and sound equipment also ranked among Jones’ many patents.
Current Black Leaders in Construction
Penn is a leader in today’s construction industry. From his work inside Swinerton, to his active role in industry groups that are focused on increasing equity and inclusion in construction, Penn is making a major impact. His involvement includes serving on AGC of California’s Diversity & Inclusion Task Force, comprised of more than a dozen highly qualified and diverse industry professionals. He credits organized efforts like these in helping propel needed change, but after 13 years in the construction industry, there is still room for improvement.
“We’ve still got a lot of work to do in regards to recruitment, retention and advancement for folks of color so that the workforce begins to reflect the demographics of the community where a lot of the construction is taking place. It’s rare that I see a Black foreman or superintendent,” said Penn. “The narrative is that it’s all about hard work, but I think it’s all about opportunity and creating space for people. It’s ripe for improvement and greater opportunity.”
So, what’s being done? At Swinerton, the company has a Black Community Business Resource Group that has spearheaded the company’s celebration of Black History Month, throughout which the company is sharing information on Black history, influential Black leaders and insight into Swinerton’s own Black talent and workforce. Additionally, in 2020, Swinerton accelerated their journey towards diversity, equity and inclusion following the death of George Floyd and other events that energized and expanded the social justice movement.
Nutt is also an exceptional Black leader in the construction industry. Starting as a sheetmetal worker, he worked his way up into a General Foreman role and then was promoted into executive level Preconstruction. Nutt has made a direct impact in the field and in operations.
Beyond his work role, he also commits his time to service. Nutt is not only an active member of the AGC of California Diversity & Inclusion Task Force, but he has also served on the AGC National Diversity & Inclusion Steering Committee for several years and volunteers his time supporting workforce development initiatives such as AGC and AGC Construction Education Foundation’s Build California reach historically underserved youth find rewarding careers in construction. See a recent Instagram Live discussion on diversity in the industry.
Nutt has personal experience facing inequity and disparity during more than 30 years in the California construction industry, and as the son of a Black business owner who operated his own Oakland-based mechanical contracting business.
“I’ve been through definite racist and unfair treatment, but at the same time I knew not to use anything as an excuse but to just continue to press forward regardless of what was coming against me,” he commented.
While he is optimistic about the progress that has been made, the journey is far from over. “When it comes to leadership and executive leadership in companies, those types of roles are still very under-represented within our industry,” he said.
As for changes in business practices, he said, “No one wants to be on the side of history that stands against something that may dehumanize or keep people down. It’s better business (to be more diverse), and that more diverse teams actually tend to perform better.”
Change is occurring at Southland as well. “We try really hard as a mechanical contractor to set ourselves apart in not just treating people like a number. From the top-down, people know they matter and their voices matter. The discussion is how do we (increase diversity) in a very grass roots way where it doesn’t seem like initiatives that are passed down just from an executive mandate.”
John Harriel, Jr. Diversity Manager/Superintendent for Morrow Meadows
John “Big John” Harriel, Jr. serves as the Diversity Manager/Superintendent for Morrow-Meadows and is the winner of the AGC of California 2020 Construction Education Friend Award. With over 21 years of leadership experience and outstanding outreach efforts, he has made a significant impact on the lives of many in his community. He goes above and beyond to implement not only sustainable change for the inclusion of disadvantaged and underrepresented workers, but also implements workforce and life skills training through a number of programs proven to change lives.
Through his volunteer commitment at the community-based non-profit 2nd Call, and as the founder of “Big John Kares,” he works to give back to those often overlooked in the Black and other underserved communities. Harriel strives to provide second chances to the formerly incarcerated, at-risk, or proven-risk residents of South LA, Compton, Watts and Inglewood, and acts as a conduit to high-paying union jobs and sets a positive example by sharing his personal testimony on how he found redemption and built a successful life after his own incarceration.
“I believe in empowerment,” Harriel says. “When a person gets to a leadership position, they need to prepare for what they don’t know. I treat people without the kid gloves and give them the opportunity to learn.”
While he acknowledges that changes are being made to address the lack of representation and opportunities for Blacks in the construction industry, he raised concerns that more needs to be done to increase diversity and inclusion efforts. “Diversity is being in the room,” John states. “Inclusion is being able to be yourself in the room.” He expects that the next generation of construction workers will drive change as they enter the workforce. Implicit – and typically unintentional – biases are fading as younger generations enter the industry.
The industry can look to the example of Harriel’s employer, Morrow-Meadows, for their top-down, intentional approach to understanding and supporting their diverse workers and providing them equitable opportunities to succeed. While Morrow-Meadows is highlighting the voices of Black employees throughout Black History Month, Morrow-Meadows focuses on increasing equity, diversity and inclusion regularly and with intention.
Harriel recounts performing a ride-along with the President of Morrow-Meadows, Robert Meadows, through his community in South Central Los Angeles, who wanted to understand firsthand the lives their historically underserved employees live and the actions the company can take to provide wrap-around support and professional development. It is through intentional, consistent effort like this that change is made.
Sharon Coleman, President of Coleman Construction, Inc., is part of the conversation to promote equity and inclusion at the local, state, and national level. An entrepreneur since 1994, the varied portfolio of Coleman Construction has allowed her to witness firsthand the struggles Black Americans face in the construction industry.
“Opportunities are not equally shared with Blacks, and that shows in everything,” Coleman stated. “I’ve been personally asked to bid on large projects just so they could show a diversity and inclusion option and many times it is just for show not to truly do business with us.”
Coleman is looking to address these issues across businesses and the construction industry at large through her participation on the Associated General Contractors of California’s Diversity & Inclusion Task Force (D&I). The Task Force is looking to train companies on how they can grow Black and other minorities talents.
Beyond following the guidance of the D&I Task Force, Coleman suggests approaching the National Association of Minority Contractors (NAMC) when discussing the improvements companies can make to create a more diverse and inclusive culture. The NAMC is an association representing the interests of millions of skilled minority workers across the country. “We would like to be a part of the conversation,” she says. “If people are talking about making changes for Blacks they need to be included – you can’t make a decision for something you don’t know.”
Future Black Leaders in Construction
Devante McCloyn, Junior Estimator for Royal Electric
New on the path of a rewarding career in construction is Devante McCloyn. McCloyn was scouted by Royal Electric Company after they recognized his potential at a career fair. Starting as a college intern, he worked his way up to Junior Estimator and is on the path to high places within the company. “When I first started, I didn’t even know what a receptacle was,” he laughed. “At Royal, they’ve literally shepherded me up from the bottom. I’ve always felt able to ask questions and been pushed to learn more.”
He spoke positively about his experiences as a young Black man in the industry. “I can only speak for myself, but for Royal Electric specifically they’ve always been so welcoming and inclusive,” McCloyn stated. “We’re one family, with one goal – do an amazing job on the project we’re working on.”
According to McCloyn, the biggest barriers result from generational differences and gaps in knowledge. Due to rapid technological advances, newcomers to the industry with the most up-do-date trade information may face push-back implementing improved processes and procedures. To break down these barriers, McCloyn suggests implementing company cultures where change is welcomed, and staff are open learn new things.
Justin Whitted is an up-and-comer in the construction industry. After graduating with his MBA and starting a path in the corporate world, Whitted realized that his passions were elsewhere. To make this 360-career change, he relied on the resources of the Urban League to visit construction jobsites, conferences, connect with construction professionals, and identify opportunities in the industry. He credits AGC of California’s own Vice President of Workforce Development, Erin Volk, for connecting him with his current employer Griffith Company.
“Griffith Company invested in my skills and attributes and gave me the opportunity to build a lifelong career in construction,” he stated. “I’m excited to continue to grow and help others pursue careers in construction.”
Regarding the significance of marking Black History Month, Whitted remarked on the importance of acknowledging the great Black leaders who paved the way for others to have the opportunities today. “I’m forever humbled by all of the contributions black leaders gave to this country and industry.”
Babatunde Onadele Jr has risen swiftly through the ranks at Blach Construction. After realizing he isn’t the kind of person to be content with a career spent behind a desk as a civil engineer, his construction path led him to Blach Construction as college intern in 2012. He successfully navigated his last year of school, while continuing to work on an active project, showcasing his potential. Onadele currently holds the position of Project Manager, overseeing multiple multi-million-dollar projects and multi-person teams.
Although Onadele has achieved great successes, he recognizes what’s lacking in the industry.
“It’s not all about what you know, but who you know. As most Black American’s, myself included, did not inherit an industry network and are essentially racing to catch up to our peers from the moment we enter the industry,”
“A more conscious and intentional effort is needed by construction companies to establish a stronger recruiting pipeline and cultivate the exponential talent within their current Black employees, as well as improving hiring practices to bring more into the industry and displace the narrative of ‘not having enough qualified candidates.’”
Blach Construction is part of a movement within the industry to create a more inclusive environment for Black Americans, and all minorities. The company recently created a resource group for black employees in 2020 and is publicly celebrating Black History Month on social media. “But the bigger value is focused internally,” Onadele stated. “They’ve reassessed a lot of things like hiring, recruiting, and are looking for opportunities to promote black leadership from within. Once this becomes a standard practice and not the exception only then will the industry truly become a more inclusive place.”
Check back throughout February during #BlackHistoryMonth as we continue to share more stories from current and future Black leaders shaping the construction industry. We encourage you to join us in highlighting Black leaders making an impact on California’s construction industry at your organization using the hashtag #agcca.