Construction is a booming business in Texas. The latest numbers from 2016 show it’s a $75 billion industry in the state. There’s more demand for construction workers than there are people willing to do the jobs, and that means it’s gotten hard for contractors like Denis Phocas to hold onto qualified workers.
“There’s so much work and unemployment rate is at an all-time low – that these folks they know that they’re needed,” says Phocas. “So, they can say, ‘You know? The guy down the road is offering me $2 more an hour. See you!’ Holding unto people is much more challenging than you think.”
That’s why some Texas contractors are trying something new to improve retention. They’re focusing not just on more money, but also more cultural sensitivity.
I’m at the working lunch the Associated General Contractors of Texas has put together. About 20 construction contractors from around central Texas are here today. They’re listening to a presentation from consultant Bradley Hartmann.
Hartmann tells them they need to do better – they need to learn at least a little bit of Spanish. He says a little will go a long way with their workers.
But Hartmann isn’t teaching Spanish 101. He focuses on a few shortcuts he says will help these contractors use the language more often as a sign of good will.
“So, what we try to do is to give you these kind-of loops where you can be in control, but you have tactics to manage within the language,” Hartman says.
One loop starts by asking “Hay problemas?” Are there any problems?
“And if you get some kind of feedback that says ‘no’ you can simply say ‘OK, excelente. Gracias.’ And if there is some sort of feedback that there is [a problem] – you can simply say ‘Dónde?’ What does ‘dónde’ mean?”
“Where,” the group answers.
Hartmann tells the contractors fluency is not essential, but the basics are necessary.
“You can then feel comfortable leading that conversation. But, again, a way to engage shows interest,” Hartman says.
A 2013 study by the advocacy organization Workers Defense Project and the University of Texas at Austin found 81 percent of construction workers in Texas are Hispanic. The overwhelming majority, 73 percent, are foreign-born, meaning Spanish is the language they’re most comfortable with.
Beyond the language, there are cultural differences, too.
“I thought that was a really interesting point, something I hadn’t thought of before,” says Kim Bowser, who attended the class.
She wanted to fully digest what she had learned, so we caught up later.
“So, my big takeaway from taking the class was the Power-Distance-Index,” she says.
That’s the concept that Hartmann used to show how uncomfortable foreign-born Hispanic workers can be when it comes to questioning authority, or even asking questions. That’s because challenging authority is perceived in many Hispanic cultures as a sign of disrespect.
That could be a problem for Kim Bowser since she works for an electrical contractor. Not asking questions could lead to catastrophic outcomes.
“We have guidelines. They don’t operate live. There’s no power on. But, you know? There’s still things [that] can be done incorrectly if you are not asking the clarifying question,” Bowser says.
Construction contractor Denis Phocas was also at the training session. He was deep in thought when I approached him. He told me he moved to the U.S. from Zimbabwe.
“When you moved from Africa, did you think – ‘I can do this. I speak English.’ Did you know you were going to be working with so many Hispanic workers?” I asked.
“I did not know,” he said. “I always managed to figure it out to some degree because I am of Greek descent and the Greeks and the Latinos we have some common denominator – the way we handle our families. But my reason for coming here today is to better my understanding.”
Then I asked if there is one thing he learned today.
“Today what I learned was the ‘trust-factor.’ That element of trust was an important factor and it never occurred to me that trust was the issue,” he says.
“What is one thing or one problem that you may be facing that you think ‘oh, maybe this is a trust issue,’” I ask.
“The pride – a Hispanic employee, because I don’t speak the language – if I spoke the language, I wouldn’t have this problem,” he says. “I have noticed over time that if I challenge one of them, they get offended. And we challenge them from an English perspective, which comes off even worse. Whereas if I challenged them in a Hispanic way – if I challenged them in Spanish – it wouldn’t hit their pride as much.”
Other contractors told me they didn’t know that in many Hispanic cultures, looking down when someone in authority is speaking is a way to show respect. In Texas, that can be misunderstood – a contractor may get frustrated thinking, “Why can’t they look at me when I’m speaking to them?” or “Why are they ignoring me?” That simple but meaningful misunderstanding can sever the relationship.
Hartmann says avoiding this requires contractors to find common ground.
“Lastly, keep in mind – appreciation is one of our deepest human needs. And in the environment, we have now – the ways we go out of the way to say ‘Thank you. I appreciate the hard work’ – it’s often one of the differentiators that we see when people know they can go someplace else and get 50 cents more an hour. So keep that in mind.”
For these contractors, it’s worth it. They say every time a worker leaves, it’s $30,000 down the drain – that’s how much they say it costs to train someone new.