On Record: Zero froth content

When we arranged to do our cover shoot for this issue we knew we would have to be careful. Few Hispanic immigrant construction workers would want their photo on the cover of a national magazine – including those who are here legally.

The fact that Pedro is on our cover is a testament to the respect he has for his employer, Buddy. Buddy returns that respect.

“He’s as smart as they come,” he told us.

This past year, we’ve watched the arguments over this nation’s massive and growing Hispanic immigrant workforce reach full froth. From reasoned debate to red-in-the face spittle fests, little has been settled on how this nation should deal with our 11 million-plus illegal immigrants – and even that estimate is a stab in the dark.

While the words are flying overhead, you have to deal with the new jobsite reality: Hispanics – the ones the U.S. government can count, that is – now make up more than 26 percent of the construction workforce, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

As our executive editor Tom Jackson says, Spanglish – the mixture of Spanish and English that’s predominant on today’s jobsites – is a “language in the making.” When it comes to its labor force, construction has to consider itself an industry in the making.

God knows this industry has tried every form of outreach to lose the perception our jobs are for academic non-achievers. We’ve talked to grade school classes, passing out toy hard hats. We’ve developed websites designed to encourage kids to check us out. We’ve even established a high school dedicated to the construction trades. And still the numbers aren’t there. The Construction Labor Resource Council tells us we need 185,000 new construction workers a year to sustain our present rate of growth.

Our report on this issue is not to say, “Rah, yeah, Hispanic immigrants” (or as some prefer, Latinos), but to simply point out a sea change has occurred in construction that can no longer be ignored.

I like the approach taken by the National Concrete Pavement Technology Center, which issued a report this June sponsored by the Iowa Department of Transportation and conducted by Iowa State University. It spells out how to effectively train Spanish-speaking construction workers, while addressing a problem – the number of Hispanics killed at construction sites jumped 24 percent in 2000, while overall fatalities decreased 3 percent. The solution: Train American supervisors and Hispanic workers at the same time with an integrated approach.

It’s direct, spells out the resolution and has zero froth content.

It also underlines what I think is our great opportunity: Since construction is so affected by these shifting demographics, we have the chance to show the rest of the country what we’ve always known how to do – get the job done.