Want to Find Women-Owned Suppliers? Build Your Own!

Last Updated Jan 7, 2011 9:01 AM EST

Manly men in the construction industry whine constantly about the supposed lack of qualified women and minority contractors.

Sure, they'll comply Federal contract set-aside rules...grudgingly. But it's hard, hard, hard, they say, to find companies owned by women or minorities to dig holes, rent backhoes, pour concrete and do all the other jobs that add up to a new highway or building.

Here, just in time to get you up to speed on the Small Business Administration's new rules for contracting with women-owned businesses, I bring to you the true tale of how one construction company solved this problem, exceeded its goals for contracting with women-owned businesses, and fostered the growth of numerous small companies.

It's indisputable that women are scarce in construction; only 1.7% of American women work in the industry. The vast majority of construction-related firms have fewer than five employees, which makes it hard for them to grow big enough to qualify even for entry-level projects with major companies.

Enter Turner Construction Co. About 40 years ago, Turner created its School of Construction Management. The program is aimed at new and growing companies that want a chunk of business from Turner, and it teaches those companies' owners and project managers how to get it. "It teaches everything from safety to estimating to purchasing to the whole spectrum of insurance. It lets us get to know them and look for mutual opportunities," says Kevin Dow, vice president and general manager for Turner's Southern California office. Over 450 contractors have gone through his region's edition of the program.

Thanks to the school, Turner usually exceeds its own goal of hiring women and minority owned firms for at least 20% of its contractors. Last year, that business totaled more than $1 billion. Not surprisingly, Turner gets plenty of community relations props. The San Diego Airport Authority was so impressed by the program, says Dow, it offered to host the classes to bask in the reflected goodwill.

That's a good model, especially in this economy and with the current administration. Increasingly, federal contractors of all types are being held accountable for meeting the modest goal of doling out 5% of their subcontracted business to women-owned firms. (Currently, the overall goals are to direct 23% of total Federal dollars to small businesses, plus 5% each for 'disadvantaged' and women-owned businesses, and 3% each for businesses in designated locations and those owned by disabled veterans.)

The Feds took advantage of the stimulus bill and the Obama administration's priorities to shape up their contracting process. My question: Why don't more big companies do what Turner does and foster their own constellation of qualified subcontractors? Probably because supplier diversity is rather a backwater. With accountability spotty, big companies have been able to get away with lame claims that they couldn't find qualified women-owned businesses in time to meet the deadlines specified by the contract. In other words, hey, what's more important? Getting it done on your schedule, or holding everything up looking for a probably non-existent qualified woman-owned business?

That's how they've wiggled out of it so far. Patience will be running short. Big and medium-sized companies can accelerate the pool of qualified women-owned suppliers by partnering with local trade and tech colleges to hold fast-track training for existing companies.

Turner proves it can be done, and done well. What's your excuse?


Image courtesy of Morguefile contributor mconners.