Construction firm and Austin groups agree to meet regularly on jobs

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Earlier this month, Austin residents and activists protested outside the offices of Walsh Construction. The group said the construction firm doesn’t employ enough West Siders and had one goal: a meeting with company executives.

Two weeks ago, that meeting happened, and the two sides agreed to getting together once a month.

The first meeting, held at Walsh Construction, 900 W. Adams St., brought together executives from the construction firm and representatives from People Organized for Public Progress and the Westside Health Authority.

Virgil Crawford of the Westside Health Authority and one of eight people in the meeting held June 11 said it was a good starting point. But he says there’s still a lot of work to do to ensure West Side residents get “a fair shot at employment.”

“We wanted to establish with Walsh that we felt they had a greater role to play in job creation and job opportunities in the construction trade, especially for communities like Austin and Maywood,” Crawford said. “They are a leader in the construction business, and they can help us.”

Douglas Rai Cunningham, director of corporate diversity for Walsh Construction, said the firm wants to work with the Westside Health Authority and People Organized for Public Progress to address concerns about “fair and equal employment in the construction industry.”

But he noted several times that the unemployment rate in the construction trade is nearing 50 percent.

“They are looking for employment, but there isn’t a lot of job opportunities out there right now,” Cunningham said.

“It’s tough for everybody. This is probably our roughest year in the market; revenue in Chicago used to carry 60 percent of the revenues for our company, and it’s down to about 18 percent.”

Crawford tipped his hat to Walsh, saying company officials understand the magnitude of the recession.

“Even though Walsh is one of the leading construction firms in the city, they themselves have been hard hit,” Crawford said. “A number of their people are out of work, and we realize that they are not going to be able to provide full-employment for every person that we feel needs a job.

“But the fact that we found some common ground was a significant step toward the progress in the relationship-building progress.”

Cunningham said Walsh Construction has always wanted to be an example of what large companies can do to get involved and work with communities like Austin and Maywood.

Both sides realized, Cunningham said, that they share the same concerns.

Crawford praised the construction company, saying it’s obvious Walsh wants to be a leader in helping struggling communities like Austin.

“We were reassured by them saying they would use their leverage in supporting our effort in any way they could,” he said. “We were really satisfied with where we are now and what happened in that meeting. We just have to keep pounding the way.”

Crawford said the two groups have decided to meet monthly to begin addressing concerns about construction training, and employment and union sponsorship, which is needed to have a job in the construction business.

“We both agreed that the training programs that exist fall short in leading people into real opportunities. We need these people to not only get a certificate, but get a job,” he said.

“We look forward to continuing to working with Walsh and getting an agenda on the table to start addressing the concerns of our citizens.”

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