In the middle to late 1990s, when casinos were on a building spree and the furniture market was booming in Mississippi, the construction industry faced a dire worker shortage. Since then, Hispanics have filled many vacant jobs, proving themselves capable, dependable, hard working and loyal to employers.
“Hispanics are very fast learners in most any type work,” said Chip Crane, president of Fulton-based F.L. Crane & Sons, whose Texas workforce is approximately 75% Hispanic. “The Hispanic labor force has grown a lot quicker in Texas than most other places, probably due to location. They filled part of the void we were facing years ago. Now we have a base of trained craftsmen, and still have a market for common labor.”
Nationally, Hispanics comprise approximately one-quarter of the construction industry workforce.
“The Hispanic proportion … has grown rapidly and we expect this will continue,” said Justin Crandol, director of safety and health services at the national office of Associated General Contractors (AGC). “This raises some of the most important safety issues facing AGC and the construction industry.”
Those issues include determining ways to address the language and cultural differences in the Hispanic population so that contractors can keep Hispanic workers safe. From 1997 to 2002, total fatalities in the construction industry increased by slightly more than 1%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. During this same period, the number of Hispanic fatalities in the industry jumped by nearly 50%.
“Through AGC’s safety department, we’re developing classes in Spanish to teach Hispanics CPR and safety on the worksite,” said Perry Nations, executive director of the AGC of Mississippi. “We have more Spanish-speaking literature, including instruction manuals and videos, and our education foundation is always looking at alternative ways to train Hispanics as craftsmen. It’s going to be a major challenge for us to be sure they are properly trained and know how to operate safely in the worksite arena.”
The language barrier remains a primary concern on the job between Hispanics and English-speaking employers.
“Most Hispanics can speak some broken English,” said Crane. “All of our crews, whether in Texas or Mississippi, have translators that can communicate very well. We work with our employees in different ways to improve communication skills, like construction Spanish classes put on by Mississippi Adult Craft Training, a class put together by contractors with words pertaining to everyday construction work.”
In addition to holding construction jobs requiring stucco, plaster and masonry-type experience (hanging sheetrock is one of the most popular construction jobs), Hispanic workers are popping up on a growing number of road building crews in Mississippi.
“Hispanic workers are fine highway builders,” said David Barton, executive director of the Mississippi Road Builders Association. “A lot of road builders in Mississippi employ them because they are hard workers who seem to have a lot of company loyalty. When I was a contractor, it was a great opportunity for them and us.”
Even though they share a valuable partnership, Hispanics and English-speaking contractors need to continue developing a better understanding of each other’s values. “We have to respect the way they do business,” said Barton.
Ensuring that Hispanics are authorized to work in the U.S. remains problematic. AGC effectively blocked a bill during the regular Mississippi legislative session that would have placed the burden solely on general contractors to ensure that all Hispanics have the proper forms of identification required to work in the state.
“That would have been too big of a burden for one person, especially when you consider everyone on a job site — subcontractors, their subs and crews,” said Nations. “How can you ensure that the forms of ID are true copies when counterfeited ones look so real? I don’t know the answer, but holding general contractors responsible is not it.”
The labor shortage in the construction industry was not fully addressed until recently, when industry leaders began pushing construction labor as an educated labor force “that can make very good livings in this industry,” said Crane.
“As a society, we push people to go to college and major in something, not manual labor-type construction,” he said. “It is so obvious that our state government is pushing very hard to improve our adult craft training as well as working with our community colleges in other types of craft training. We as a state have great resources. We must all churn together and bring the cream to the top. Then we’ll be where we are supposed to be: at the top.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org.