Breaking language barriers
April 5, 2004
A growing number of workers in northern Nevada who speak little or no English translates into greater language barriers on construction jobs.
The issue raises concerns in the industry, and contractors, trade groups and unions are taking a variety of approaches to grapple with the problem.
Safety is the biggest worry.
“We’re in a business where if someone does something wrong, he can get killed,” says Sheril Bradley, president of Byars HM Construction Co.
Bradley says more than half the laborers her company hires speak Spanish or limited English.
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As a result, Byars now produces employee manuals, safety materials and time cards in Spanish.
And this year Bradley plans for the company to offer a Spanish class for English-speaking employees and an English class for Spanish-speaking workers.
The classes will be tailored to language needed on the job.
Two years ago as president of Associated General Contractors, Bradley pushed for the trade group to offer a Spanish class for supervisors.
The idea attracted great support, she says, although the class was pushed to summer, the busiest time for construction companies, and participation wasn’t as strong as she had hoped.
Responding to growing concerns among homebuilders, the Builders Association of Northern Nevada sponsored a “Spanish In-a-Pinch” seminar a few months ago for supervisors.
The seminar featured a presentation on basic Spanish language and Latino cultural principles and introduced language cards that supervisors can use in the field to help them communicate with workers.
Developed by a Sandy, Utah, company called 2nd Language Success, the laminated, pocket-sized cards list English words and phrases commonly used in construction, along with the Spanish translation and pronunciation.
A general construction card, for instance, includes sections on measurements, numbers, lumber sizes, directional terms, nailing patterns and tools.
The company also produces cards specific to 15 trades, such as plumbing, electrical and roofing.
Teri Scharosch, special projects director for the association, says the approach is effective because the cards address specific needs on the job.
“Supervisors don’t need to learn how to say, ‘I want my steak rare,'” she says.
“But they may need to know how to say, ‘Space these six inches apart.””
Estate Painting & Wallpapering previously had sent its Spanishspeaking employees to English classes and its English-speaking employees to Spanish classes.
It’s now using the Spanish In-A-Pinch cards in the field and in the office.
“I have mine on my desk,” says office manager Gina LeSage.
Besides construction terms, her cards include phrases that come in handy for bookkeeping and personnel issues, such as “Give me your time card on Monday.” While language barriers create challenges for construction managers, they can also lead to poor working conditions for workers who don’t speak any English.
Those workers must then rely on a bilingual crew leader, who serves as their only link to the contractor.
In some cases, the workers pay kickbacks to the translator.
“They’re open to abuse,” says John Ainsworth, apprenticeship coordinator for Carpenters Local 971.
The Carpenters Union Joint Apprenticeship Committee, a partnership of the union and contractors, launched a pilot program last year to help limited-English speakers learn enough language and math skills to be eligible for the union’s apprenticeship program.
The pilot program offers sixweek sessions with classes four nights a week.
Those who finish and qualify for an apprenticeship in the union also receive $150 in tools.
A $38,000 grant from NevadaWorks funded the one-year pilot, and University of Nevada, Reno, instructor Rod Case and interns developed the English-as-a-second-language curriculum.
One person so far has completed the training and joined the apprenticeship program, and five to 10 students now are participating in each session.
Ainsworth says the program has grown slowly because it’s taken time to get the word out about it and participants have had to go through a process to make sure they are in the country legally.
UNR interns publicized the program through fliers at churches, restaurants and job and career centers and advertisements in Hispanic media.
The Joint Apprenticeship Committee plans to fund the program itself after the grant money runs out in June.
“We’ve planted a seed, and it’s starting to grow,” Ainsworth says.
“It’s not an oak tree yet, but we’ll get there.”
The local Laborers International Union of North America also addresses language barriers.
The union offers safety classes in Spanish and provides information on local English-as-a-second-language courses to its members.
Antonio Mayorga, a training instructor for Local 169, says language barriers are troublesome when dispatchers call non-English speaking workers and can’t communicate with them.
Those workers sometimes miss opportunities because some contractors require that laborers speak English.
Truckee Meadows Community College offers vocational English-as-asecond- language classes as well as Spanish for supervisors.
The college can also customize classes for companies, but corporate and communication relations manager Anastasia Sefchick says she hasn’t seen much demand from construction firms yet.
Most of the English learners in construction take the college’s classes on their own, rather than through company-sponsored programs.