Immigration, legal or otherwise, has a huge impact on the construction industry. In order to succeed in our current market, you need to adapt and understand how to deal with the cultural, language and liability implications of having a multilingual workforce.
The Political Fray
There's no doubt that immigration and workforce issues are at the forefront for cities across the nation. Take, for instance, my small neck of the woods. In nearby Herndon, Va., a firestorm has erupted over a recent plan to fund and build a facility for day laborers. The structure would allow laborers to congregate in order to meet those who drive by to hire workers for the day. Currently, laborers in the area just gather around on street corners.
The project has become the local political flashpoint for commentary ranging from NIMBY ("not in my back yard") to outright vitriol against allegedly illegal immigration. A California guest host on a local radio program asked listeners to call in to the City of Herndon's offices and "melt their phone lines." Apparently, listeners did and the City was forced to simply turn off their phones. Even the governors' race has been dragged into the issue as Republican candidate Jerry Kilgore has attacked Herndon's efforts as improper and even illegal.
The Interplay of Immigration and Construction
The interesting factor in this entire debate is that most people I have heard or read locally on the topic have completely ignored the critical interplay between immigration and the construction industry. Day laborers congregate in a shopping center literally across the street from my office building. That is only one of multiple such spots in the Northern Virginia region. These "day laborers," legal or not, are beginning to comprise a major portion of the construction industry, in particular the subcontracting trades on residential projects in this area.
A recent study by the Northern Virginia Building Industry Association (NVBIA) found that over 60% of the entire construction labor force in our area is Hispanic. Northern Virginia has traditionally attracted many Hispanic immigrants. Nevertheless, I am certain that our locality is not alone and that these trends are reflected nationwide in the construction industry. This widespread shift over the last couple of decades in the makeup of the construction labor force has huge implications for the industry.
The Language Barrier
While we can certainly discuss case after case concerning immigration and workforce issues, I would like to point out one element that is a mainstay regardless of politics.
Over the years, I have had numerous cases that are purely due to language communication difficulties. For instance, laborers and even skilled craftspeople on site who speak English fluently often have difficulty properly reading plans and specifications. Add a language barrier to the mix and attention to the plans and specifications becomes far more difficult. The chances for problems and failures to adhere to contract documents increase exponentially when you add a language barrier.
In addition to the hurdles introduced by a language barrier on plans and specifications, laborers who have difficulty speaking English fluently can struggle to communicate with co-workers, other trades and owner's representatives. These struggles make the complex task of properly building on time and under budget even more difficult.
Investing in Staff and Language Training
There is a dramatic need for bilingual personnel in the construction industry. When it comes time for you to hire, look for people with language skills in addition to construction skills. Place an emphasis on this critical need, or else you will run the risk of communication breakdowns in your operation. I would hazard a guess that in many labor markets, having a bilingual person who knows nothing about construction may actually be more valuable to your operation in the long-term than a highly skilled person who does not speak Spanish.
The long-term savings from leaping the communication hurdle are impossible to gauge. What I can say anecdotally is that companies I see that succeed in using Spanish-speaking workers tend to have a fairly well developed bilingual capacity in-house. Also, project managers and forepersons who can communicate to either English- or Spanish-speaking workers are particularly valuable.
Business owners and managers may even want to consider investing in training their personnel to speak a second language. At first glance, the educational expenses may seem off the beaten track and a weak investment to some readers. In my analysis, the savings from potential liability claims, delays and cost overruns are dramatic when compared to the modest expenses for tuition in either English as Second Language (ESL) classes or Spanish classes. In addition, this type of investment in workers can help to build loyalty and increase worker retention as you will be directly providing skills that give your workers a "leg up" on the competition.
Immigration and language issues present special challenges to the construction industry. Owners and managers need to recognize and respond to this challenge to succeed in today's construction industry.
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