A portrait of Rita Johnson and Jennifer Hart in front of the construction site.
After graduating from the workforce training program, Rita Johnson (left) began working as a laborer for Hartline Construction, where her boss is Jennifer Hart. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

Since 2021, Rita Johnson has been working to build the new KCI terminal as a laborer on the airport construction site, doing demolition work and picking up after other trades. 

Before her time at the terminal, Johnson had never worked construction a day in her life. In fact, she was in health care administration for over 30 years before deciding she needed  a change of pace. 

“I didn’t want to be back in the office anymore, and I still wanted to work with my hands and to work with people,” Johnson said. “So construction is what I chose.” 

With no experience on building sites, Johnson turned to a workforce training program at KCI, a collaboration between Edgemoor Infrastructure & Real Estate, the developer leading construction on the new terminal, and design-build partner Clark Weitz Clarkson. 

The three-week training program was crafted to address issues of equity and an aging workforce by introducing workers with little or no construction experience to careers in the industry.

The $1.5 billion terminal — the most expensive construction project in Kansas City’s history — has been a bonanza for job seekers. As the Feb. 28 opening date draws closer, airport and concession employers are still looking to hire hundreds of residents for a variety of jobs. And about 6,500 workers participated in some phase of airport construction, according to Geoffrey Stricker, Edgemoor’s senior manager.

Construction jobs — and who would get them — have been an issue ever since the Kansas City Council chose Edgemoor as the lead developer for the new terminal in 2017.

Civil rights groups initially threatened to withhold support for the project until they were convinced of the company’s commitment to hiring minorities and women. And a year ago, the Federal Aviation Administration questioned whether the project was in compliance with diversity and civil rights reporting requirements that were part of federal grant funding. 

At that time, Edgemoor said more than 20% of the project’s budget had been awarded to minority- or women-owned firms, and that 23% of workforce hours had been performed by minority workers and 7.6% by female workers — all exceeding the initial goals.

Workforce training program

KCI’s workforce training program is one of 15 initiatives created to help build capacity for local, minority- and women-owned businesses and bolster a future construction workforce.

The initiatives include internships, small-business training, partnerships with local banks to provide access to capital at lower financing costs, and discounted equipment rentals.

During the three-week workforce training program that Johnson attended, participants were taught labor history, construction math skills, jobsite safety and soft skills, such as communication and financial literacy. 

In order to support low-income and vulnerable participants throughout the program, students were given a $400 weekly stipend. Edgemoor also offered extended child care hours at sites throughout the city, a bus service to and from the job site with RideKC and onsite health care.

“We were very intentional about making sure that we were providing opportunities for everybody on the project and recognizing that the construction jobs are good-wage, good-benefit jobs,” Stricker said.

Edgemoor reached an agreement with construction trade unions to use majority-union firms on the project, such Hartline Construction, one of the contractors working on the terminal and a signatory to several labor unions at the terminal. One of the unions is Laborers Local 264, which Johnson is a part of. Through the unions, first-level carpenters make $20.82 an hour and general laborers make $30.70 an hour. 

While Johnson did not need to use any of the resources offered through the workforce training program, she saw how impactful they were for her classmates.

“I even witnessed them help a person with a place to stay because they were homeless and they were coming to the program with no place to even stay,” she said. 

Eventually Johnson began to give rides to a classmate who had no means of transportation and walked to work every day. 

“I liked the program because it feels so familial…  because in helping us they allow us to help each other and want each other to succeed,” she said.

Shifting the trends

Over the course of the construction project, 200 students have graduated from 10 training classes, Stricker said.  About 70% of graduates are still in the construction industry. 

Of the graduates, 65% were people of color and 7% were women, exceeding the company’s goals of 20% and 2.75% respectively.

“Graduates have earned more than $6.2 million in wages working on the project and they’ve worked over 200,000 hours,” Stricker said. 

Edgemoor’s latest tally of its contractors reported that 25% are minority-owned and 19% are women-owned, exceeding initial quotes of 20% and 15% respectively. 

“This was transformational,” said Alise Martiny, the business manager of the Greater Kansas City Building & Trades Council, who was instrumental in crafting the diversity agreements . 

“This is the only project in the city that doubled its workforce goals,” she said. “For us to more than double those goals is huge and transformative to minorities and females.”

While the training program has focused on diversity in local construction, long-standing barriers for women and people of color persist on a more expansive level. 

Jennifer Hart, the founder of Hartline Construction, launched her company in 2011. She had worked as an architect and grown accustomed to many of the challenges that come with being a woman in a male-dominated field.  

“Women are always underestimated, that we’re going to fail,” she said.

“Do we need to prove ourselves a little bit more? Yes, we do. We’re questioned every day. And that is frustrating. If you’re determined at what you want to do, being a female or minority should not determine whether you’re to be successful. But oftentimes, it does,” she said. 

Her experience as a woman in construction inspired her to participate in the workforce training program, to assist people like Johnson.

“I want to allow and give individuals an opportunity to find a new career,” Hart said. “And mainly I wanted those individuals to provide a living for their families and for themselves.” 

Recent Posts

MILI MANSARAY is the housing and labor reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. Previously, she was a freelance reporter and Summer 2020 intern.