Council OKs contracts after hiring questions

Jan. 22, 2013 @ 09:28 PM

City Council members voted unanimously on Monday to hand out a trio of construction and consulting contracts after the firms receiving them defended their efforts to hire blacks.
The three firms involved between them reported employing 155 people, with blacks holding just four of those positions.
That “is why this matters,” Councilman Steve Schewel told executives of one of the firms. “I understand there are difficulties and mitigating circumstances, but want people to understand how seriously we take this. While the efforts are good, we are very anxious to see results in minority hiring.”
The largest of the contracts, for about $1.4 million, went to a Durham general contractor, Riggs-Harrod Builders Inc., that will build a new operations building for the Parks and Recreation Department.
It reported having one black among its 25 employees.
Company President Bruce Harrod attended Monday’s meeting and also wrote council members beforehand. He termed the reported employment figures a “snapshot” of one moment in the life of a firm that sees regular turnover.
The company has many blacks on staff over the years and presently has two, Harrod said in his letter. The second joined it in December as bidding on the city’s project neared its conclusion. The two black employees are Rigg-Harrod’s two highest-paid tradesmen.
Harrod said the problem he’s run into is that not many blacks are applying for the firm’s jobs.
“Maybe we’re not doing a good job of presenting the opportunities available,” he said, adding that he suspects it’s an industry-wide problem and pledging to relay to city officials a list of available jobs.
The second contract the council had questioned, a $52,470 award to a Baltimore firm called Biohabitats Inc., will pay for the evaluation of an anti-pollution technology the Public Works Department is thinking of using in the Falls Lake watershed.
Biohabitats presently has no blacks among its 55 employees. Its chief operating officer, Tim Burkett, attended Monday’s meeting and repeated earlier comments to The Herald-Sun that its most recent black employees had left for better jobs.
One, an accountant, joined an accounting firm after earning a degree Biohabitats had subsidized. Two others, technical drafters, joined one of the country’s largest engineering firms.
Burkett said a factor in the report is that “over the last five years I would say we have not done a lot of hiring,” though it might be able to add jobs if it can grow its North Carolina office.
He also said Biohabitats is working with schools in Maryland, not just to find recruits, but also to convince inner-city youths to pursue careers in the sciences or engineering.
“It’s a big challenge for the entire industry,” Burkett said.
The third contract, worth $110,000, will go to CDM Smith, an engineering and construction firm the city’s Water Management Department is hiring to design water and sewer lines for an economic-development node on the edge of Orange and Durham counties.
CDM Smith is global firm with a staff of more than 5,000. But locally, it has 75 people, three of them black.
Company representatives said the firm works with N.C. A&T State University to place interns and award scholarships. They pledged to start working with Durham-based N.C. Central University.