Why Texas Contractors Are Learning To Build In Two Languages


(Texas Standard) — 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.

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