When Boston Local 103 Business Manager Lou Antonellis swore in this year’s class of apprentices, he welcomed the most diverse class in the union’s history. And it wasn’t by accident.
“We made a point to be as inclusive as we possibly could,” Antonellis said. “Diversity and replicating the communities in which we serve is very important to us, and it’s been a priority of ours for some time.”
Of the 375 apprentices who were sworn in, 51% were either women or people of color. Those numbers represent a concerted effort by the local to reach out into the communities where they’re working and make sure the workers match up.
For Local 103, having a representative membership isn’t just the right thing to do, though that is an important part. It’s also in response to what its customers want: a diverse workforce on their projects, and that means more women and people of color. And it’s especially important if that customer is a college or hospital campus, or a large bank or government entity, Antonellis said.
“They are very diverse, and they expect the same from their contractors and subcontractors,” Antonellis said. “It says we’re paying attention to our customers and the world around us.”
Local 103’s intentional outreach has taken a number of forms, says Business Agent Renee Dozier, from tapping into local neighborhoods, schools, churches and community centers to good old-fashioned word of mouth.
“You would be surprised how many folks are unaware of the amazing opportunities available right here in the trades,” Dozier said. “That’s why it’s important to show up in our communities and show people who we are and what we do.”
The 8,000-plus-member local has been doing this type of concerted outreach for a while. In 2018, it ran an ad campaign targeted to Boston-area communities of color. The results were encouraging, with the local receiving a record-breaking 687 applicants from the city of Boston, a 95% increase from the prior year. Among those, 452 were people of color — the largest number of minority applicants for a Boston construction apprenticeship ever at that time. Additionally, 85 of the applicants were women, including 57 women of color.
“Our business has been known as a father-son business, but nowadays it’s father-daughter, mother-daughter and mother-son,” Dozier said.
There’s also the construction shortage. Funding from federal legislation like the American Rescue Plan Act and the Inflation Reduction Act, as well as demand from projects that were sidelined by COVID-19-related disruptions, have led to a boom in Boston and surrounding areas.
“We need more members to meet the added demand, and women and people of color are really helping us do that,” Antonellis said.
Local 103 isn’t just bringing in more people. It’s also making sure these new members want to stay.
“We are doing whatever we have to do to make sure these new members stick around,” Antonellis said.
Dozier says the local is always doing a drive or political event, not to mention a lot of volunteer work, as ways to keep members involved.
“When we have skin in the game in our own neighborhoods, it’s empowering. It’s the essence of our Brotherhood, sticking together and showing strength and solidarity,” Dozier said.
Antonellis and Dozier said mentorship is also a big part of their retention strategy. Mentorship programs have been shown to help members from historically underrepresented groups feel more accepted, which in turn helps to keep them from leaving the field.
“Providing mentorship programs, especially to young women and people of color, is a really important piece of retention,” Antonellis said. “It lets them know that they’re not alone and that they have people to reach out to who are willing to help and who they can share their experiences within the industry.”
Dozier also noted Local 103’s numerous affinity groups as another way to help keep new members active and engaged.
“People want to know they belong, that they are recognized and valued. Then they can be motivated and contribute,” Dozier said. “We have something for wherever you fit in. Local 103 has the Electrical Workers Minority Caucus, as well as a women’s group, motorcycle group, veterans’ group, Asian-American group, Italian-American group, and recovery group. There is something here for you if you want it.”
Creating a more diverse membership might not happen overnight, but it’s definitely possible, says Dozier. You just need to be purposeful about it.
“The whole country is waking up, and it’s an exciting time for growth for all of us,” Dozier said.