Hispanic Work Force Meets HVAC

October 15, 2007
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It’s well known that the number of Hispanic workers in the construction trades has been increasing and will continue to do so. The building industry, which has been facing an equally well-known decline in skilled workers, needs the new blood.

HVAC contractors have reported some communication gaps when working with other trades, such as drywallers. It would seem that increasing language barriers could create problems on jobsites across the United States, especially where safety is concerned. However, signs point to the eventual decreasing of communication gaps as more immigrant populations become acculturated within the United States.

THE SAFETY SITUATION

“In our local area, we’ve found that a large percentage of the drywall, framing, utility installation, etc., trade employees encountered at typical jobsites are Hispanic,” said Kelly Bryson, chief operations officer of Berg Mechanical (a division of Johnson Controls Inc.), Shreveport, La. “Most crews have only a foreman who is bilingual; the other crew members generally have no English language skills.” The contractor’s full-time corporate safety director monitors the safety program and supervises continuous training.

“In order to effectively work with these trades,” Bryson said, “we’ve found it necessary to provide construction-related Spanish language training for our foremen and service technicians who are providing the HVAC startup services for construction projects. We’ve also provided Spanish language training on safety-related jobsite issues for the same group of employees.” The company has outsourced this training to Multilingual Training Solutions in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.

Multilingual safety training seems to be a driving force in the industry’s labor diversity right now, according to industry training providers. Trainers like Multilingual Training Solutions are saying that nonunion contractors are having training provided for non-English-speaking newcomers. Sheet metal workers and installers also might need bilingual training that focuses on safety.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Website, www.osha.gov, contains multiple resources and materials in Spanish. These include English-Spanish dictionaries with trade-specific terms, fact cards, posters, bulletins, English as a Second Language (ESL) trainer information, eTools, and of course, compliance information.

“Communication is a critical part of safety,” said John Current, safety manager for Current Mechanical, Fort Wayne, Ind. “In anticipation of an influx of a lot of Hispanic workers, and some who already are in certain parts of the country who aren’t real conversant, we put together some safety training resources in Spanish,” he said. Spanish safety information is currently available through the Mechanical Contractors Association of America (MCAA).

“There’s not a huge problem with MCAA members,” he said. “They have to go through a safety training process.” The important thing is to make sure safety concerns are communicated effectively to other tradespeople, whose actions at the jobsite could affect a mechanical contractor’s safety rating if an accident results. “If a system is locked out, for example, and the communication is in the form of a tag, and you had Hispanic workers on site, there should be something in Spanish as well as in English.”

DEMOGRAPHIC SHIFTS

Contractors like Current are being proactive. Indiana is not a border state, so its Hispanic population isn’t as high as others. Most Hispanics in the United States (48 percent) live in Arizona, California, Florida, New Mexico, and Texas. However, Hispanic citizens represent the largest minority in Connecticut, Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont, Washington, and Wyoming.

“In Southern California the Spanish and Asian influence is readily visible,” said George Rodriguez, president/CEO of ServTEC Air Conditioning Inc., Santa Fe Springs, Calif. “The white majority is rapidly dwindling down to a minority status, making Spanish and Chinese the influences to contend with. Learning and using those languages along with English will be necessary for a business entity to survive.

“Our employees already have an advantage since we are all bilingual, Spanish and English,” he continued. “Up to now we have not encountered miscommunication due to language. If customers are signing legal documents, we have always been able to converse in English or Spanish.”

With the acculturation of the Hispanic population in the United States, it’s likely that language barriers will be less of a problem than they are now. Of the 32.2 million U.S. household residents (age five and older) who speak Spanish at home, more than one-half already say they speak English very well, according to information from the U.S. Census Bureau.

And in the Aug. 23, 2007, U.S. News & World Report, research on Spanish language retention in Southern California stated, “Mexicans in the region retain proficiency in their native tongue longer than other immigrant groups, but English quickly dominates. Fewer than 30 percent of the children of Mexican immigrants reported preferring to speak Spanish at home. By generation three, only 17 percent of the Mexican-Americans spoke fluent Spanish.”

“If there’s not retention of the Spanish language in Southern California, it’s not going to be retained anywhere,” said study author Prof. Douglas Massey, of Princeton.

This would seem to indicate that Hispanic U.S. residents will assimilate into the English-speaking culture the way earlier populations of European immigrants have: Each new generation will adopt more into the mainstream, although new arrivals will generally speak their native language. Those who hold on to their native language will tend to belong to older generations.

COMMUNICATION NOW

For the immediate future, offering safety, product, and technical information in multiple languages would be most practical. Emerson Climate Technologies, for example, recently announced its support of Florida State University’s Center for Hispanic Marketing Communication, by offering a scholarship for select students pursuing careers in Hispanic Marketing Communication.

“This program is meaningful and timely for both the university and the HVACR industry, as we are seeing continuous growth of Latino contractors and end users,” said Tom Bettcher, business unit leader of Emerson Climate Technologies.

“We’re serving an increasing number of Latino customers, so it’s important that we bolster our labor force with workers who really understand this market,” said Larry Taylor, president of AirRite Air Conditioning Co. Inc., Fort Worth, Texas.

“I’m happy to see Emerson Climate Technologies taking the lead to ensure that our industry has a pool of new talent, so that we can take advantage of the growth opportunities this population represents.”

Patrick McMahon, Bryant’s market manager for South Florida, agreed that one of the greatest challenges he faces in his market is explaining the technological and value benefits of Carrier, Puron, and two-stage technologies. “Because of cultural factors, price is a large factor,” he said.

“Explaining benefits and value over price can be difficult for non-English-speaking contractors.”

There are two to three product pieces in Spanish per brand (Carrier and Bryant). “With the new products coming on-line in 2008, new Spanish versions will slowly become available.”

McMahon said he offers technical training in Spanish. “Our customer assurance manager, a Spanish speaker, has translated the factory presentations. We also offer sales training in Spanish. Half the TM sales force speaks Spanish, so we can conduct sales training in Spanish.

“We have bilingual speakers at almost all locations,” he continued. “We could not communicate without this. Most non-English-speaking customers expect to speak in Spanish, but they read HVAC-related information in English.”

“Once again, we must adjust or die,” said Aaron York, owner of Aaron York’s Quality Air Conditioning & Heating Inc., Indianapolis. “Families today are not the traditional families we grew up with. There are many more nationalities with whom we must learn to work, communicate, sell, and service.

“We must learn to handle same-sex life situations, mixed families, single-person homes, and foreigners who hardly speak English. Like it or not, agree or not, this is the way it is today. We change or we change our line of work.”

Publication date: 10/15/2007

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