Learning To Get By

By Jim Cory

Ken Kelly, owner of Kelly Roofing, in Naples, FL, got the kind of phone call that just makes your day. His crew had arrived at a customer’s house that morning and by noon had completed its tear-off. Now the homeowner was on the line, spitting expletives and insults because the crew didn’t speak English. 

Kelly told the owner he was pulling the crew and canceling the job. His production manager called the crew chief and Kelly drove to the house. He got there to find the homeowner on the driveway, begging the crew not to leave. Evidently—looking at his stripped roof and no doubt thinking about how he was going to find another roofer before it rained—he’d reconsidered. 

 

Broadening And Accelerating

If you’re in the exterior contracting business, chances are good you’re using crews who don’t speak English. They likely speak Spanish, though that may not be the case either. The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that as of 2014, 27.3 percent of workers in construction were “of Hispanic or Latino ethnicity.”

But “construction” means a lot of things. When you’re talking about roofing, according to the BLS, 51.7 percent of workers are Hispanic, along with 50 percent of painters, 45.5 percent of brick and stone masons, and 42.5 percent of “helpers, all trades.” That last figure is telling. It means the trend is broadening as well as accelerating. More and more tradesmen will be Hispanic. “I’ve been in this business 34 years,” says David Cerami, owner of Let’s Face It, a cabinet re-facing business in suburban Philadelphia. “You can definitely see a real change in the workforce.” What he sees, Cerami says, is “very few Hispanic plumbers or electricians” but many Hispanic workers in low-skills positions, such as roofing. At his company, the exception is the Spanish speaking tile-setter Let’s Face It uses. “Between his English and our limited Spanish, we’ve been getting by.” 

 

Reinforcements Arrive

The guy out there pleading with Guillermo and Juan not to walk must be living on his own planet. Or just not paying attention. Who did he think would be nailing a new roof on his house? Fewer and fewer “Americans” (whatever that means) seem willing to do that. That’s what Tara Dawn, co-owner of Opal Enterprises, in Naperville, IL, found. “We’ve tried and failed to hire W-2 installers,” she says. Three times she tried, at great expense. This one didn’t want to work with that one. That one wouldn’t ride in the same truck as the other one. The third one said it took too long to drive to the office. Worse than managing around their whims was the fact that W-2 installers “take three times as long to get the job done” as a subcontractor. 

Fortunately for Dawn, co-owner Voytek Opalski, a Polish immigrant, knows lots of fellow Eastern Europeans in Chicago, mostly Russians, Czechs and fellow Poles, in the trades. Fast and skilled, they’re in high demand. Using them, Opal was able to stick to its production schedule.

 

Vanishing Industrial Arts 

Given the declining interest in construction as a career path for American youth, immigrant crews are like reinforcements who arrived in the nick of time. But homeowners don’t know about any of this. And some of them are flat-out bigots. So how to manage it? Fred Finn, president of Euro-Tech, in the Chicago suburbs, regularly uses subs who are Spanish, Polish and Russian speakers. But “I wouldn’t hire them unless they have someone on our jobsites who speaks English. The homeowner bought the job from an English-speaking person. That’s a good way to overpromise and under produce.”

Finn notes the disappearance of Industrial Arts (i.e., shop class) from high school curriculums. That’s where young people learned how to use tools, draft house plans, problem solve, and work with building materials. Industrial arts has been disappearing from American high school curricula for decades. In 2014, 68.4 percent of students completing high school were enrolled in a college the following fall. 

So far immigrants have been there to fill in the gap. But the current administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration threatens that. And there are other factors. Dawn says she’s noticed that the subcontractor crews from Eastern Europe she uses, once mostly in their 20s, are now mostly in their 40s. She worries that Eastern Europeans are no longer choosing to emigrate to the U.S.

Why don’t immigrants just become employees? Many do. But many others prefer to run their own subcontractor businesses. Some of those businesses morph into successful home improvement companies that sell as well as install the job. Take Horacio Kusnier, an Argentine immigrant who transformed his New Jersey installation business into K&B Home Remodeling. Kusnier recalls how when he first arrived and got a helper job at a home improvement company 20 years back, he was the third Spanish-speaker among the company’s 25 employees. Asked about his qualifications, he told them he worked hard. Apparently they believed him. “In the interview they asked me if I knew how to do siding,” he recalls. “I said: ‘I don’t even know what that is.’”