District residents are being hired for local construction jobs at a significantly lower rate than that of residents in other major cities — a rate that, if equal to other cities, could result in 11,500 more residents working in the industry, according to a new report by an advocacy group.

(Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The group concludes that the city must push its First Source law, which requires firms to hire District residents if they receive government funding for a project, according to the report released Tuesday.

The law has been promoted by Mayor Vincent C. Gray and council members as a way to tackle the city’s unemployment problem, but it has also received pushback.

The Associated Builders and Contractors of Metro Washington, along with two local companies, sued the city earlier this year, calling the city’s law unfair. “....With the recent amendments to the First Source Act, contractors cannot possibly comply with the act’s hiring and quota requirements, and they are threatened with job losses, business failures, and debarment from government contracting,” the lawsuit reads.

Good Jobs First points to the current construction of the Marriott Marquis hotel in downtown D.C. as proof that First Source can work. District residents make up about 64 percent of new hires and account for 42 percent of all hours worked on the project, according to the report. “Opponents of the First Source reform claim that new targets set the bar too high, but the Marriott Marquis hotel project shows it is possible to meet the standards...”

The group found in its study, looking at Census and other data, that District residents have been shut out of construction jobs based on longtime who-you-know hiring practices.

“Often construction superintendents ask existing crews for recommendations on new hires. Contractors rely on word-of-mouth hiring because they believe it reduces the risk of a bad hire, but the practice also keeps otherwise qualified workers from even knowing about open positions,” according to the report. “Many District contractors are headquartered outside the city and currently hire from pools of workers who live outside the District. Without having ever worked on a construction site, District workers are locked out of the market simply because they will never get referred by existing construction workers.”

The group uses data in the report to argue that substance abuse and poor education, often said to be problems with hiring District residents, are not significant barriers to hiring in construction. “Drug use does not definitively explain why District residents are underrrepresented at construction sites,” according to the report.

Gray (D) said in an interview that he has not seen the report but would like to see the data. He said he is aware of complaints that District residents feel they are being shut out of construction jobs. “I hear it, too. Certain populations are getting the jobs,” he said.

The mayor noted that his plan to get District residents to work identifies the hospitality and construction industries as ones to tap for jobs.