The nation’s immigration policies are a topic of intense debate. Yet rural builders agree that an increasing number of Hispanic workers are applying for construction jobs. And grateful to fill positions that otherwise might remain vacant, builders are adapting their operations to the needs of Spanish-speaking employees.
“Just about all of my workers are Spanish speakers,” says Omar Khan, owner of Anglers Construction in Round Hill, Va. With a payroll of between seven and 15 employees who are divided into two crews, Anglers performs post- and timber-frame construction throughout Virginia’s fast-growing Loudoun County.
Because his market is undergoing rapid economic expansion, Khan is getting new competition for workers. “Even 10 years ago,” he observes, “I’d see young people just showing up at my jobsites asking for work. But now our county has a lot more restaurants and retail stores where people who need jobs can work. So they don’t want to do construction anymore.”
Filling the gap are Hispanic workers, which over the past five years Khan has been hiring in increasing numbers. “They have a great work ethic and they’re eager to learn,” he reports. But Khan also explains that the learning must go both ways.
“I’ve had to learn some Spanish,” Khan says, “but it isn’t that hard to pick up, and I always carry my Spanish phrase book with me. Nowadays, when I go to the lumberyard and meet other builders, all of my friends can speak Spanish!” Khan also has a couple of longtime Anglo employees who have become bilingual and can translate instructions when necessary.
But according the Khan, the real secret of communicating with Spanish-speaking workers “is to be there on the jobsite with them, to be involved with them and to be a team.” Even when employees know little English, he observes, construction skills can be effectively taught through showing as well as telling. “They can learn by watching you,” he says, “and besides, post-frame construction is a lot like doing Legos. Putting all the parts together is fairly easy.”
While Khan admits that most Hispanic immigrants come from nations where the education system is often lacking and construction standards may be lower, he also has observed that most of his foreign-born employees have already picked up American building techniques since arriving in the United States. “Nevertheless,” he adds, “anytime that I buy material safety data sheets or other safety instructions, I also try to get them in Spanish if possible.”
Though Anglers Construction values its reputation for quality, Khan says, “in order to survive in our market, we also have to achieve high volume.” Without Hispanic workers to fill out its crews and thus meet customer demand, Anglers might not make it.
“So my advice to builders is to be patient with employees who speak a different language,” he suggests. “You’ve got to be willing to work with them and not just boss them around. But then, after all, the same is true with any employees you hire today.”
Talking the Talk
Robert Lucas is another builder who serves a high-growth market and depends on Hispanic workers to comprise nearly two-thirds of his 25 employees and five crews. As president of Lucas Construction & Development of Vero Beach, Fla., he builds a wide variety of structures — from spec homes to agricultural buildings, and from light commercial projects to airplane hangars. Contracts may range in value from $100,000 to $2 million.
“The growth in our area is phenomenal,” Lucas reports, “and after last year’s hurricane damage, there’s a lot of reconstruction work to do.” Native-born Americans, he observes, often view construction labor as demanding and are therefore drawn to jobs in the service sector such as restaurants and retail. Also, the decline of union representation in the U.S. construction industry has decreased the number of craft training programs that once introduced young people to the trades.
“But the guys who come here from Mexico and Colombia,” Lucas notes, “can make more in one day working for me than they can make in a week back home. So we get five times more job applications from Latinos than from any other group.”
Over time, Lucas also has been pleased to develop a core group of Hispanic workers. “We don’t have a lot of turnover,” he says, “and many of our Latino employees have been with us for five or six years.” Yet in running a bilingual operation, he admits, “we’ve still got to be very specific when communicating our objectives to employees.”
For example, Lucas has two crew leaders who are fluent in both English and Spanish. These men conduct the company’s weekly safety meetings, reading out each week’s safety topics on both languages. Lucas purchases printed safety sheets in Spanish from a construction industry publisher. For his own company policies, Lucas has his staff translate the documents and then copy them for distribution to employees.
One challenge Lucas has encountered is a tendency for Hispanic and Anglo workers to segregate themselves into separate groups on the jobsite. Such self-segregation is a common occurrence in any multiethnic setting, as people naturally gravitate toward others who share their language and culture. “But on a construction site everyone must be a team,” he points out, “and so you’ve got to instruct your crew foreman to keep cliques from forming by telling people they have to work together.”
Lucas would be happy to serve as a training ground for some Hispanic employees who might eventually start their own companies. “But you don’t see that happen very much,” he says, “because at least in Florida, it’s hard to get a contractor’s license. You need a lot of education. And to start a business you need access to capital. It’s still difficult for immigrants who don’t have a command of English to do all that.”
Nevertheless, Lucas admires his Hispanic employees. “They work hard and they have a desire for a better life,” he believes. “After all, that’s why they came here.”
Learning the Language
In southwest Michigan, Doug Thomsen’s workforce is impacted by the seasons. At Thomsen Construction & Supply Company of Lawrence, Mich., he serves an area where the economy is based on farming. Hispanic workers are drawn to the area for seasonal jobs in the agricultural sector, and then apply for construction work at other times of the year.
Like other builders, Thomsen agrees that natural-born Americans seem less attracted to construction labor than in past generations. “But when we hire Hispanic people, they’re very hard workers,” he reports. That’s important, because Thomsen Construction tackles post-frame and renovation projects valued up to $200,000. The company maintains a single crew of between three and four workers, which travels within a 50-mile radius of its home office.
One of those workers is a Hispanic crew foreman who has been with Thomsen for more than a decade. “He can translate from English into Spanish,” Thomsen says, “and when we need workers, he’s able to recruit other Hispanics that he knows.” Yet Thomsen observes that, even though he himself is not conversant in Spanish, “I’m still able to communicate because most Hispanics who’ve been in the U.S. for any length of time usually know some English.”
Safety training is perhaps the biggest challenge that Thomsen faces when he hires Spanish-speaking workers. “Try explaining how to operate a forklift to somebody, when you don’t know each other’s languages!” he laughs. But he takes the situation seriously and is currently investigating the prospect of translating company policy documents in Spanish.
“We haven’t translated them yet,” Thomsen allows, “because it can be expensive if you have to pay someone to do it.” One possible solution, he says, is to seek help from a local government agency.
When Thomsen started in 1981 — and for a decade afterward — his company received no job applications from Hispanic workers. “The first was in 1992,” he recalls, “and for several years we had maybe one or two Spanish-speaking applicants per year. But today, it’s about triple that amount.”
Just as with Omar Khan and Robert Lucas, the winds of economic change are sweeping over Doug Thomsen and his company. “Our area is starting to get developed and there are fewer and fewer farms,” he observes. “More Hispanic workers are looking for non-farm jobs, and so I expect we will continue to see an increasing number of applicants for construction jobs.”
Bob Dorazio, a general contractor in Avila Beach, Calif., also serves an agricultural district. He hires crews and engages subcontractors on a job-by-job basis, and so has employed Hispanic workers from a variety of nations and cultures. To him, the act of translation between languages is relative.
“It’s one thing if you’re at the United Nations,” Dorazio points out, where international crises can rise or fall on the accuracy of a single translated phrase. “But in construction,” he continues, “there’s what I call ‘jobsite English’ and ‘jobsite Spanish.’ You only need someone on the job who knows enough words and phrases to get by. And the number of words you need aren’t really that much, since learning how to do jobsite work is more visual than verbal.”
Ultimately, Dorazio maintains, “it isn’t even necessary for one of our workers to be able to read. We can just show them what to do. If you can just focus on a few Spanish words and phrases, you’ll be able to communicate.”
Practically speaking, Dorazio adds, “Language isn’t the real problem. The real issue is a person’s attitude and willingness to learn. Good attitudes will overcome any barriers you might face. But bad attitudes translate into bad results, no matter what language a person speaks.”