Minority contractor org questions DOT diversity program

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT) released its report on the status of Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) — but the National Association of Minority Contractors-Wisconsin (NACM-WI) said the report is not reflective of who the program was meant to serve.

Specifically, the report shows that of all white women owned contractors accounted for 61% of all WisDOT DBE contracts despite only representing 32% of business in the program.

The DBE program was created to serve smaller minority owned businesses “to increase the talent pool of contractors ready, willing, and able to perform high-quality work throughout the state highway system,” according to WisDOT’s page for the program. But as considerations of who is considered a minority contractor has been expanded, ethnically diverse groups, the people these programs were meant to serve, have been left behind.

“Some of the language it’s been designed to, I guess, be more inclusive of what it has done in terms of its actual impact. It has become more restrictive, quite frankly, for ethnic minority firms to get in on the contract pieces as reflected by these numbers that we pulled from the report itself,” said Tim McMurtry,  NACM-WI Executive Director of Infrastructure Business Development.

The WisDot pins the low number of contracts given to Black owned companies as a “lack of business and management acumen,” according to NAMC-WI. NAMC disagrees with the sentiment that these businesses lack the acumen, contending they are simply not given a chance.

“We’re seeing, what I would categorize, hopefully, as unintended consequences, as opposed to intended consequences,” McMurty said. “But everybody wants to eat. Everybody wants to get their piece of the pie.”

Having white women-owned contractors take up the majority of WisDOT contracts prevents ethnically diverse owned businesses from graduating out of the DBE program and scaling up, according to McMurty. 

And while “everybody wants to eat,” the majority of companies are not able to. NAMC-WI is looking at how to remedy the issue — the organization points to its national organization for ideas.

NAMC has advocated for large contractors to segment out smaller portions of projects to smaller businesses. The goal is to have effort trickle down. Ideally the smaller companies will be able to take on more contracts, scale their respective businesses, grow and eventually become the bigger companies that dole out smaller portions of larger projects.

In addition to findings from the WisDOT DBE report, the response rate to a survey on how the program operates is only 11%. WisDOT claims that perceptions on the DBE program are positive, but that conclusion is based on only 31 responses among the 275 contractors in the DBE program.