Labor Shortage? — Nah!

The fall board meeting of the National Association of Home Builders was just held in Salt Lake City and as usual, there were a lot of good ideas to chase, friendships to renew and problems to address. One of the hottest topics is still the labor shortage in most of the trades. For the first time since our industry has been grappling with how to get competent people even to train, we are seeing some real positive motion.

Attention to issues from immigration law reform and enforcement to outreach has been building for several years, but at NAHB it has reached tidal wave proportions. The Hispanic population is the fastest growing segment of our society and serious attention is being giving to the types of homes desired, marketing to Latinos and of course to dealing with the language issue. We have seen new Spanish language magazines on construction, “Construction Spanish” classes and seminars at shows as efforts by remodelers, home builders and mortgage lenders try to better understand this quickly growing segment of our population.

Some statistics bandied about such as fewer than 60 percent of California households have English as the primary language are sobering; reactions to having to press “1” to continue in English and some immigration enforcement and entitlements are even maddening, I’ll admit. But it’s here gang and it’s time to do what remodelers do best — fix it!

While there are areas of disagreement, the Hispanics represent a significant solution to the semiskilled construction labor shortage. Language is the biggest barrier to them migrating over to the “skilled” side. In many markets, we get by in the field by using one of the crew as our two-way translator. But as we are aware, that does not promote permanence. Spanish speakers should learn English and the construction terms in order to learn.

Many who have worked with and around Latino crews are aware that the desire to be productive is there. They came to America for the same reason our ancestors did, to find a better life and being able to communicate is key to that. In the typical Hispanic household for relatively new immigrants, the school children are the translators — Mom and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa, don’t speak or understand English.

HBI, the Home Builders Institute of NAHB is nearing completion of a great approach to learning English, called Sed de Seber or “Thirst for Knowledge.” It is on the LeapFrog™ toy platform and is very easy to use. It is written for residential construction and is designed to allow the student to work by him or herself and at their own speed. The prototype has gotten very enthusiastic endorsement from everyone who has seen it. The hospitality industry has used the product very successfully.

Here is a sobering thought — over 20 percent of residential construction accidents are traceable to language difficulties. This is clobbering your workers’ compensation coverage and it’s fixable. Sure you can start out with what I call “hammer and nail” Spanish but more is needed than just a Band-Aid.

We are dealing with competent workers but they don’t have all the right tools, language. It would be great if we could go buy a package and plug it in for instant knowledge, but I’m still looking for that one.

I investment in the language tools needed so that you don’t have to hear, “No hablo Ingles!” While you’re here . . .

M M “Mike” Weiss has been a full-service remodeler for over 25 years. As an instructor for the CGR and CAPs programs, he spends many weeks each year on the road teaching other remodelers. He is also a past chairman of the Remodelors Council of the NAHB.

And while you’re here . . . Agree? Disagree? Want to know more or even argue? Send me an e-mail with your ideas or suggested topics, we’ll think about them and see what we can do.