Until last May, no one at Lyons Roofing in Phoenix could communicate fluently with the 35 Hispanic workers who account for 55% of the company's field crew. That's when this 12-year-old business, which generates 65% of its $4 million in sales from residential projects, hired Mary Silva as its office secretary. The bilingual Silva quickly emerged as Lyons Roofing's translator and the liaison between the company's Hispanic production staff and its management. Company president Pat Lyons predicts it's only a matter of time before he'll need to hire “another Mary Silva” to keep pace with a workforce that's in linguistic flux — and likely to remain so.
Lyons Roofing is far “ from unique. The National Roofing Contractors Association estimates that as many as 40% of all production workers nationwide speak Spanish as their first language. Immigrants from Eastern Europe have also made their way into the trades in markets like Chicago (Poles), St. Louis (Bosnians), and Sacramento (Russians). “English as a first language is becoming a thing of the past,” said Bill Good, NRCA's executive vice president.
Open Career Path Roofing contractors continue to rely on immigrant labor to counter the lack of interest among young, white job-seekers in laying shingles in scorching weather as a career path. “I don't know where the industry would be today without [immigrant] workers,” Good says. “They've been a terrific addition to the work-force.” In fact, since 2003, NRCA members have been tapping into that immigrant labor pool through a strategic alliance between the association and American Work Visa, a Greenbelt, Md.–based agency that helps U.S. firms bring international workers into the country legally. “What's happening is that [roofing] companies are getting used to these industrious, hard-working foreign nationals,” says Clayton Mills, America Work Visa's marketing manager. And they like it.
Immigrant labor has become a critical competitive component for many companies. Owners and managers offer glowing testimonials. “I've gotten to where I am today because of these guys,” said Joe Feze, owner of Feze Construction, a $2.5 million contractor based in Elmhurst, Ill., that has been hiring immigrant workers since the early '90s (see “New Wave”). Clearwater Home Improvement in Mystic, Conn., which gets half of its $2.4 million in annual revenue from roofing jobs, has used Ecuadorian subcontractors for several years. President Randy Brown finds they bring a different kind of work ethic. “They don't smoke on the job, don't drink, and don't play loud music,” he says. “They're polite and want to work every day, including weekends. I can sleep at night when it rains because I know the roofs they've worked on aren't going to leak.”
But as the workforce becomes increasingly multilingual, contractors say they face new, unexpected challenges in such areas as safety training and cultural awareness. Suppliers, contractors, and trade associations are methodically translating their packaging and literature into Spanish. Some contractors, like Lyons, use translators to orient and train employees in languages the workers understand. By breaking through the language barrier, companies have developed nuanced management techniques that look beyond stereotypes and take into account the cultural differences these workers bring to the job.
Same Page The extent that immigrant workers have come to dominate the roofing trade varies by market. In Southern California, all of Bark Roofing's field workers have been Hispanic since the '80s, according to president Steve Bark. Twenty-five of 30 workers — including three of four foremen — employed by Martin Roofing, a commercial contractor in Wichita, Kan., are Hispanic, says co-owner Kurt Baumgartner. Conversely, only 10% to 15% of Invincible Associates' workforce is Hispanic, although that ratio could change. The Largo, Fla.–based contractor launched a nationwide recruiting campaign at the end of last summer to double its workforce to 300 in order to handle the repair work that Invincible's president, Steven Field, is anticipating after the recent hurricanes that tore through the state.
All of the contractors contacted for this article expect that immigrants will eventually comprise a bigger percentage of their companies' manpower and that managing these workers will require, at the very least, greater attention to their English-language skill levels. For example, only recently has Monroe, Wash.–based State Roofing been successful at getting its Hispanic workers — the majority of the 15 workers on the company's two teardown crews, and a quarter of the 15 to 20 people on its roofing crew —to accept health insurance coverage. State Roofing did that by using a translator to explain its benefits to them, according to human resources manager Brenda Devier.
Clear communication is also essential to roofers' management of immigrant workers in the field. “Most successful contractors have already found it difficult, if not impossible, to have a high number of Hispanics on a work crew without having Hispanics on the management team,” says Frank Fuentes, chairman of the Austin-based U.S. Hispanic Contractors Association, whose membership exceeds 150,000. Purely for expediency, a growing number of roofing contractors have lowered their expectations about immigrant employees' English-language proficiency — even among those managing their crews. What they care about is that the work gets done fast and well. “Our job [foremen] all speak broken English,” Lyons says. “They know enough to say, ‘Do this; do that; Friday is pay-day' — that kind of thing.”
Yet some contractors still place a premium on being able to communicate with their associates in English. To that end, Clark Roofing in Broadview, Ill., has been offering English classes to its workers “who are more comfortable speaking Spanish,” says Alex Hernandez, a Cuban-American who is Clark Roofing's vice president.
About 90% of Clark's 60-person workforce is Mexican, 30% of whom speak mainly Spanish. Hernandez says that his company initially tried to get its foremen and supervisors to learn Spanish, without success. So five years ago, it held its first English-language class, conducted in its conference room by a local Spanish teacher who Clark hired. A dozen employees attended. Clark Roofing now offers the course two hours a night, two nights a week, for six weeks in the spring and fall. “Our workers appreciate the effort,” Hernandez points out. They're also less timid when it comes to bringing up problems or asking questions.