In the construction trades in general, and in the plumbing/pipefitting/HVAC trades specifically, it is hard to argue that Hispanics are not a significant component of the workforce. While the numbers vary from a high of 48% of the construction workforce in New Mexico to a low of less than 1% in Alaska, Hispanics, both native born and foreign born, make up about 15% of the national construction labor pool, which is about commensurate with their percent of the national population.
As might be expected, the concentrations of these workers are greater along the border states of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, with a large and growing presence in such non-traditional states as Georgia and the Carolinas. However, overall, they have a presence in the construction industry in just about every state in the union.
I could bombard you with a ton of dry, statistical data about the percentages of foreign born non-U.S. citizens and the attendant national statistical data, but that's not what this article is about. Nor is it about the legal versus illegal alien debate currently raging around the country. As an example, in my home state of Arizona, I was dismayed by how few plumbing and HVAC contractors were willing to talk to me (even a few old friends were reluctant when I told them that this data was for a magazine article) about their Hispanic employees. The new employer sanctions law has everyone nervous, so most of what I learned had to be anecdotal and apocryphal with no attribution. We can leave the illegal/legal debate for another day. Today we are talking about the contribution and impact of this segment of the population as it relates to the trades.
What I wanted to know from the contractors that I spoke to was this: what percentage of your workforce is Hispanic? What is your opinion of them vis á vis their work? The answers that I got did not surprise me. Most of the people I was able to talk to in Arizona, southern California, Texas, New York and Nevada said pretty much the same thing. The average shop I canvassed along the border states held a steady 50% to 75% Hispanic workforce.
I was told that the workers were reliable. They showed up every day, and worked all day. What they lacked in basic skills, they made up for in dedication and the willingness to learn and improve. One foreman I know had been adamantly opposed to the hiring of Hispanic workers into the trade for a variety of reasons, both business and personal. I spoke with him for this article after he had the opportunity to run a crew that was heavy on semi-skilled Hispanic workers on a high school project. His attitude has done a complete 180° turn.
He told me that the cultural differences (most of his men were from Mexico) were not difficult to overcome once the workers were made to understand the importance of things like calling in when they were not going to be at work, jobsite safety requirements and things like that. Language was a problem, initially, but was resolved by having a bi-lingual assistant who was a journeyman. He also told me that it was one of the best jobs he had been on, from a manpower perspective.
The real issue
One would think that praising an employee for just showing up and working all day would be an incidental thing, but it is not. One of the reasons that the Hispanic presence is so keenly felt in our industry, aside from the fact that they are good workers, is because very few locals are going into the trades, and those that do come in do so as a “last resort” job. The stories of hiring men and not having them show up, having them show up drunk or drugged out, getting them to do the work and getting them to appear on site regularly are numerous. When you can't get local help, qualified or not, you've got to take what and who you can get to do the job, and the Hispanic workers are right there. After all you've got a contract to fulfill. This is not an anecdotal story; this is from years of real personal experience.
The Hispanic population in America is doing what every immigrant group has done before them; they have found an area where they can excel and are exploiting it. They bring untapped ability, skill set and an eagerness to do well at their chosen jobs, and without concentrated efforts by the industry at large that seems to be the only way that any new blood is coming in. Without any significant local job applicants, what is the alternative? Please don't make the old argument about wages. Good, or even mediocre employees, cannot be had at a price that makes sense to the employer. You can pay someone a good wage, but if they can't, don't or won't do the work, or even show up regularly, what's the benefit?
According to the Association for Construction Career Development, there will be 300,000 unfilled jobs at all levels of the industry within the next 10 years. Couple that with the effective average age of construction workers today — 48 — and it doesn't take a physicist to see the train wreck heading our way. When high school students place construction at #356 in their career choice charts (right next to prostitution, by the way) it's not hard to see the problem.
A concerted effort needs to be made to get, and retain, new blood into the industry and to incorporate all parts of the labor pool, Anglo, Hispanic, Black, Native American, anyone who is interested, in the enrollment and training effort. Toward that end the aforementioned ACCD is pressing a national program which bears exploring. I hope to be able to do that in coming issues.
The Brooklyn, N.Y.-born author is a retired third generation master plumber. He founded Sunflower Plumbing & Heating in Shirley, N.Y., in 1975 and A Professional Commercial Plumbing Inc. in Phoenix in 1980. He holds residential, commercial, industrial and solar plumbing licenses and is certified in welding, clean rooms, polypropylene gas fusion and medical gas piping. He can be reached at [email protected].