Part 1 of a three-part series on finding new avenues to recruit skilled workers into the industry.


For Part 2 of this series, click here.

For Part 3 of this series, click here.

“The big change in labor force composition for construction crafts has been the inflow of Hispanic workers. The percentage of Hispanic construction craft workers more than doubled from 1993 to 2003 to almost a quarter of all construction craft workers. ... [Hispanics'] impact on the construction crafts is likely to increase.”
- “Craft Labor Supply Outlook: 2005-2015”
Construction Labor Research Council, 2005

With skilled labor shortages in the 1990s and an aging workforce beginning to retire in the early 2000s, the construction industry has an urgent need to focus on attracting new entrants to the construction trades. Large amounts of new construction trades workers will be needed in the years 2005-2015 primarily because the baby boomer generation will begin to retire and leave the labor force, states a report recently released by the Construction Labor Research Council, which examines labor supply issues in the construction industry.

“Numbers of new retirees will reach levels never before seen,” the report notes. “The construction industry will share in this societal shift.”

A Construction Industry Institute study reveals that 75 percent of contractors nationwide are experiencing labor shortages. In the construction trades, a shortage of labor means a shortage of adequately trained, skilled, productive workers.

Another factor in the skilled labor crisis is the composition of the construction work force. The CLRC report indicates that there are more workers in the construction craft trades in their prime working years -- 25 through 44 -- than other industries, yet they are less likely to stay in that field through retirement age.

Pipefitters/plumbers, boilermakers, bricklayers and equipment operators have the highest percentage of workers age 50 and older (see table on page 72). Pipefitters/plumbers also have one of the highest percentages of workers over age 55.

The construction industry did increase its employment in the 1990s at the same rate as the service sector by 1.5 million people, the study notes, but a large portion of Hispanic workers entering the construction trades seems to be the key reason. While the labor force growth rate is expected to be about 1.1 percent a year for the next 10 years (the slowest rate since the 1960s), projected growth for Hispanics is 2.9 percent.

“These factors suggest that the aging of the population will be a more critical factor to the construction industry's labor force, as will national immigration policy,” the report states. “Immigration, legal or illegal, has been a traditional means of filling the need for labor throughout the history of the United States. Some immigrants bring skills with them. Immigration levels in the next 10 years are uncertain, but are likely to remain substantial.”

The private research group Pew Hispanic Center stated in a recent report that the population of undocumented residents in the United States increased by about 23 percent from 8.4 million in 2000 to 10.3 million last year.

Undocumented immigrants are those considered here illegally, on expired visas or who violated terms of their admission in other ways; and a small percentage that have legal authorization, including those with temporary protected status and those seeking asylum.

The largest group of undocumented workers comes from Mexico -- 5.9 million -- while about 2.5 million are from other Latin American countries.

Last year, President George W. Bush introduced an immigration policy that would match “willing workers with willing employers” and grant employees with immigrant status a renewable, three-year Guest Worker Visa. Recently introduced legislation would expand the number of H-2B Visas (seasonal, nonagricultural workers) from its current limit of 66,000 to 250,000. The president's proposal would place these workers on an employer's payroll as taxpayers.

Understanding Cultural Differences

If you want to hire immigrant workers for your shop, the first thing you need to do is begin to understand the cultures you may be dealing with, says Bob Losyk, a speaker and author on management topics and founder/president of Innovative Training Solutions. He recently spoke on the topic of immigrant and ethnic workers at the Quality Service Contractors Power Meeting XXII, Savannah, Ga., in February. Nearly 200 members confirmed that they had hired someone of immigrant status.

“Every culture is different,” he says. “But different doesn't mean inferior. We Americans tend to believe that when people of other cultures come here to live and work, that they have inferior educations or work ethics. It's a prejudice we need to overcome.”

To start, be aware of cultural differences and how they affect foreign-born workers. People will differ by county and region of origin, education level, skills, etc.:


  • Work ethic -- Americans are very individualistic, believe the “intrinsic value” of work is important, and are defined by their job/occupation/profession/title. Other cultures are more family- and team-oriented; they believe their job is only a part of their lives. They are also more fatalistic, so they don't believe in setting goals as Americans do. “When people come here from other countries, you have to teach them that concept of how to set goals and how to get ahead, because they're not used to that,” Losyk explains.

    Ideas of punctuality are also different. Americans have an on-time mentality, yet in some Central and South American countries, it is rude to be on time.




  • Adapting to change -- While change is difficult, Americans seem to adapt to change much easier than other cultures, he says. Other countries, instead, like tradition and keeping to the old ways.




  • Respect for authority -- Americans, especially young Americans, question authority. In other cultures, however, authority figures are respected, Losyk says. Immigrants expect authority figures to tell them what to do, and they take orders well. They also have a high regard for the older generation, looking to them for information and wisdom.




  • Communication -- We're a country of direct communicators; we get directly to the point. “Other cultures have indirect communication; they do things in a more subtle way,” he states. “They may talk in a circle, go in different directions, come to the point, then go off on a tangent. Many cultures in Asia will leave parts of sentences off at the end; it's up to you to fill in the blanks.”

    The way we greet each other is also different. Americans tend to use the hard handshake and more informal greetings, such as using a person's first name. In other cultures, greetings are more formal. A light or medium handshake is used; in some Asian cultures, they bow. And Mr. or Mrs. is used with either the first or last name.

    Eye contact is another big difference. In this country, we tend to think people that don't maintain eye contact with us are shifty or keeping something from us. In other cultures, looking at someone too long in the eye is disrespectful. “In Cambodia, it is considered flirtatious to look someone too long in the eye,” Losyk notes.

    On the flip side, smiling too much in other cultures may seem you're not sincere, yet Americans tend to be a “smiling people.”

    Pauses in conversation may make Americans uncomfortable, but in other cultures it is common, he asserts. It allows the speaker to gather his or her thoughts.




  • Gender equity -- While women in this country make up 46 percent of the workforce, people from other countries may not be used to working with or for females. “That can create a problem, so let them know that's the way it is here,” Losyk says.

    10 Recruiting, 10 Interviewing Tips

    When hiring ethnic minorities and immigrants, the No. 1 tip is to focus your recruitment efforts in ethnic churches, Losyk explains. The church is usually the center of immigrant culture. “Call local pastors, priests and rabbis and ask if you can pass flyers out after services, or ask permission to post job descriptions on the church or synagogue bulletin board or newsletter.”

    His other recruiting tips are:

    3. Advertise in ethnic minority newspapers and local magazines; your ad will be translated for a small fee.

    4. Post notices at high schools and English as a Second Language classes. Consider sponsoring or co-sponsoring English classes at your offices.

    5. Offer basic skills training and information about available community resources that will help ethnic groups in their work and home life.

    6. Consider hiring a local college student who is studying foreign languages as a translator. Hire a part- or full-time minority recruiter.

    7. Post job openings in different languages and give to employees to take to friends and relatives. Give them a small bonus for referring good candidates.

    8. Meet with or speak to local professional organizations that represent various ethnic groups. Participate in job fairs for ethnic and minority groups. Work with government-funded and community-based programs that offer assistance to immigrants.

    9. Rent billboards or use door hangers in ethnic neighborhoods in their native languages.

    10. Call refugee resettlement agencies.

      2. Check plant closings, lay-offs, mergers and bankruptcies that may employ ethnic groups or are in an ethnic area.
    Once you've established yourself in the ethnic community and begin receiving applications, you will need to interview each candidate. But be aware of any cultural biases you may have and strive to overcome them.

    Here are some of his tips on interviewing immigrant and ethnic workers:

    2. Don't judge applicants by the way they look, their name, eye contact, handshake or lack of smile.

    3. Use your last name and their last name, with titles.

    4. If making small talk, don't be intrusive or personal. Also, watch your humor; you may easily offend them.

    5. Don't expect foreign-born applicants to brag about their accomplishments. Ask them to write them down instead.

    6. Have them demonstrate they can do a particular task.

    7. If you can get them, check references thoroughly.

    8. Ask the applicant what others would say about his work, although you may not get an answer.

    9. If you have an employee that speaks the same language, use him or her as an interpreter.

    10. Keep the interview standard for all. Ask the same general questions.

      1. Dignity and respect are critical.

    Communication & Training

    Once you've hired immigrant/ethnic/minority workers, you need to make sure they are trained properly. In order to train and manage your workers well, you must be able to communicate with them.

    “A tremendous way to develop rapport with your immigrant employees is to learn a few key words or phrases in their language,” Losyk says. But be careful, as some words can have different meanings. Try to hire bilingual supervisors to help transition these workers from their native languages to English. Or sponsor English classes at your place of business.

    You can also translate applications, safety rules, employee manuals, etc., into several different languages, he notes. If you don't have someone who speaks the language(s) on staff, ask a teacher at the local high school or community college, or a bilingual college student to do the translations for you. You can't expect minority workers to play by the rules if they don't understand what the rules are!

    Another communication tip is to talk slower, in a normal volume. And avoid slang, idioms and acronyms; they only make our language even more difficult, he explains.

    When training, use pictures, signs and symbols or demonstrate a procedure to help foreign-born workers better understand what you want them to do. Try not to be long-winded, and make explanations in a logical sequence, Losyk says. And don't overload them with information; split up training sessions into smaller time blocks and give them time to go over what you have covered. Plumbing and mechanical contracting is a very hands-on field, so have immigrant workers demonstrate their understanding of the training.

    Don't laugh at their English or mistakes, even if they do, Losyk says; “the idea of 'losing face' is very important in other cultures.”

    Because of the differences in cultures, it can be easy for Americans to misinterpret the behavior of foreign-born workers. Here Losyk outlines six key behaviors that are misjudged most often:


    2. Reluctance to accept the idea of empowerment and use their own initiative - They are used to listening to the boss, who tells them what to do.

    3. Not admitting when they don't understand something - They don't want to look bad or seem stupid; the “losing face” concept.

    4. Not bragging about their accomplishments during meetings or appraisals - Because they are team-oriented, they don't like to “rise above” the group.

    5. Not complaining about things they don't like - They don't want to disrupt the harmony of the workplace. Also, they're afraid of being fired.

    6. Not looking for or wanting promotions - Again, immigrant workers are team-oriented and don't want to leave the group behind.

      1. Speaking their native language in the workplace - It is easier for them, gives them a sense of comfort.

    Retaining Immigrant Workers

    The No. 1 reason that people leave a job is the boss, Losyk states. And with immigrant or ethnic workers, some American management techniques could backfire and cause these workers to quit.

    “They can learn to accept some of these practices over time, but you must explain the reason for them,” he says. And if they do like the job and stay, they bring in others from their community.

    When management gets involved and works alongside employees, immigrants are embarrassed because they believe that the supervisor is moving “below his station.” They are also uncomfortable with employee participation in meetings, giving feedback in front of others, disagreeing with managers or taking the initiative. “They are afraid to go too far, make a mistake and lose their job,” Losyk explains.

    When rewarding employees, foreign-born workers like team rewards better than individual recognition. But some immigrant workers believe that American bosses are biased in determining bonuses, rewards and promotions.

    Other employees can also cause ethnic workers to leave. Losyk lists some American behaviors that immigrant workers complain about:


    • Demeaning attitudes and making fun of accents, customs, dress, religious beliefs and holidays.


    • Treat them as inferior, and don't recognize their education or skills.


    • Blame immigrants for “stealing” jobs from “regular Americans.”


    • Belief that immigrants don't want to learn English, and that they care more about their native countries than they do about the United States. Many of these workers came to this country for a new life, possibly fleeing persecution or repressive governments.


    • Incorrect generalizations about certain ethnic groups; lump together people who look or sound similar, but who come from different countries.


    • No understanding of the stress that immigrants are under; they have to learn a different culture, language and customs, as well as different work procedures and priorities.


    • Not treated as part of the team.

    The bottom line for working with and managing people from diverse cultures is respect, Losyk says - respect for them, their culture and their families.

    “Don't be patronizing or condescending,” he explains. “If you don't understand something about their customs or culture, ask them to explain it to you. Or look for community resources to help you understand their way of life.” If community resources aren't available, try a county/state library or the Internet.

    While you make the effort to understand them, they need to make the same effort to understand their new home. You can help them adapt to American culture by suggesting community and educational resources for themselves and their families - real estate agencies or apartment rental companies, community outreach programs, churches, schools, licensing agencies.

    Any attempt you make to understand immigrant and ethnic workers and make them more comfortable in the workplace and the community will help foster a sense of security for them. And you'll end up with good, trained, content workers for your business!

    Recruiting Resources

    For more resources on recruiting ethnic and minority workers, check out these organizations, magazines and books.