It is a fact that this industry is facing a serious shortage of skilled workers. It is also a fact that the composition of our workforce is changing: Women and minorities are entering the industry at a rapid rate as changing demographic trends reshape the American workplace.

As contractors, we need to be cognizant of changing demographic trends and realize that we could have an opportunity to address the worker shortage within our grasp.

One of the most significant factors affecting the changing face of the industry is the influx of millions of immigrants into this country — particularly Hispanic immigrants, who comprise one of the fastest-growing sectors in the United States labor force today.

Hispanics represent many nationalities and ethnicities, including Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, persons from 15 Central and South American countries, and the Dominican Republic. Today, they represent 11.6% of the U.S. population and form the largest bloc of immigrants to arrive in this country since the Irish Potato famine in the mid-19th century.

In the latest employment projections, the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the Hispanic share of the labor force will grow 37% by 2008 to make up 13% of the workforce.

Tapping This Resource Essentially, we need to learn how to help recent immigrants overcome the natural barriers to living in a new country that could make it difficult for them to succeed in the workplace.

And because the composition of our labor force is changing so rapidly, we need to revise the way we communicate and work on our jobsites.

Hispanic immigrants often lack the language skills to allow them to communicate effectively with their supervisors and non-Spanish-speaking coworkers. A recent Washington Post/Harvard University poll lends credence to what we, as contractors, are seeing on our jobsites: 73% of first-generation Latino immigrants speak mostly Spanish.

The inability of non-English-speaking workers to understand directions given in their non-native tongue could prove disastrous on the jobsite, particularly when it comes to safety. That’s why Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC) has developed more than 60 “Tool Box Talks” in both English and Spanish.

The talks focus on a variety of subjects, including accident investigations, demolition, horseplay on the jobsite, working with lead, working on scaffolds, and working under severe weather conditions. The talks are available in electronic format and on CD-ROM and include materials and safety data sheets.

A number of the association’s chapters have developed programs to help contractors and Hispanic employees work better together. In Virginia, for instance, a chapter offers 14-week English as a second language (ESL) classes for the employees of member firms, and sells Spanish-English dictionaries.

Additionally, the National Center for Construction Education and Research has translated its core curricula for the standardized craft “Wheels of Learning” materials, offered by NCCER to its partners, into Spanish, and plans to translate other materials into Spanish as well.

Clearly, there is much more that needs to be done to reach out to Hispanic workers. Cultural differences also need to be taken into account. Although second and third-generation Hispanics typically take on many of the attributes of what we consider “American,” a large percentage of new immigrants retain much of their native culture.

The ability to reach out to these workers will prove increasingly valuable as we try to find ways to help them overcome language, cultural, and educational barriers.

At a time when contractors are searching far and wide for quality craft workers, it makes sense to tap into this pool of workers who are eager to do a good job. We can help them succeed. Responding aggressively to the dynamics of the 21st-century construction workforce will pay off in safer jobsites, better-trained workers, and a construction industry that provides outstanding benefits to the entire construction team.

Musser is the national president of the Associated Builders and Contractors and ceo of Tri-M Corp. He can be reached at 703-812-2000.