Every now and then a homeowner will ask: “Your guys speak English, don’t they?”
Well, yes, they do. Some of our crew members speak English; not all of them. Or at least not yet.
If the crews who install your products are immigrants, you probably get that question all the time. Sometimes it masks a certain bias. More often it’s about communication. Homeowners want to be sure that if something goes wrong—if debris from the tear-off is raining into a flowerbed or someone needs to move a truck—there’s a person on the jobsite they can talk with.
If your residential construction business is located in the Northeast, California, the Southwest, or even in Iowa or Minnesota, you’ll find (or you already know) that skilled trades in roofing and siding are made up predominantly of immigrants from Mexico or Central or South America—Latinos are estimated to be anywhere from 70 to 90 percent of the installing workforce in roofing in various parts of the country.
And it’s not like these installers took someone else’s job. The number of native-born Americans seeking to enter these trades is low and diminishing. Sure, I’d love to find some native-born Americans who are certified craftsmen. But in my experience, they’re rarely available, or when they are, their bedside manner leaves a lot to be desired, shall we say.
We’ve tried. On one occasion a few years back we ended up firing a crew like that. They’d get to the jobsite at 9 or 10 in the morning and knock off at 2 o’clock, 3 o’clock at the latest. Paydays were hopeless—they’d be gone by noon. The job we thought would take a week invariably took three. Guys would arrive for work with beer on their breath. And they weren’t particularly receptive to suggestions about jobsite conditions. “Hey, my eyes are barely open and you want me to clean up the driveway?” And I would give the workmanship a C to C+ at best.
The Smell Test
We install with employees rather than subcontractors as much as we can. But like many exterior companies, we have a fairly substantial backlog in certain periods. When people need a roof replaced, they really need it replaced. So we’re always on the lookout for quality installation crews. Most, here in northern New Jersey, are Hispanic, but not all. For instance, we had a Polish crew at a company that I used to work for who were astonishing. The crew consisted of a guy, his dad, and a third person. They showed up at daybreak and worked until the sun went down. They worked relentlessly and with high attention to detail.
That kind of dedication to work is also fairly typical with Hispanic crews. They start work right at 7:30 a.m. They take regular breaks but they’re usually back at work before the break is over. They don’t talk while they’re working. They respect the customer’s property and are aware and considerate of the client and people in the neighborhood. The only complaint I’ve ever gotten from neighbors is that the hammers started swinging prior to 7:30, which was in violation of a township ordinance.
A Matter of Perspective
So when we go by a roofing or siding jobsite and see a crew we don’t know, we stop, park, and watch them work. We see if they’re installing ice-and-water shield. We check out whether or not they’re using drip edge.
If it looks like they know what they’re doing, we’ll get out and talk to them, tell them we may have some work for them. They usually want to know how we want a roof, or a siding job, installed. Our answer is simple and always the same: We expect it installed exactly to the manufacturer’s specifications, which are printed and available in booklet form in both English and Spanish.
When we find a good crew, we put them on the payroll. Our Hispanic crews—right now all of our crews are Hispanic—get amazing reviews on Angie’s List, Yelp, Google, and the Better Business Bureau site. That’s the best feedback you can get.
I think about it this way: Immigrants risk leaving the country they’re from to come to a place where they believe the opportunities are greater. They typically work hard and they have pride, and that carries over to the quality of the work. That energy and attention to detail makes the difference between a good job and a great job. I want installers, whatever their ethnic background or language may be, to put in the extra effort and attention that a great job demands. Not only that, but I want a smiling, satisfied customer who is only too happy to provide a glowing review or a referral.
If immigrants started disappearing, the construction industry would be devastated. The reason? We don’t have replacements. So the challenge for most owners today is to figure out how to work with these crews. First, have at least one person on site who’s bilingual. If you want to add more Hispanic crews, have a production manager who speaks both languages. I know of companies that subsidize English lessons for Hispanic workers—what better way to earn their loyalty? And if so many of your workers, and even your managers, are Spanish-speaking, and you believe yourself to be a first-class manager who values frequent one-on-one communication with employees, maybe it would be worth your while to learn Spanish, too.
Think of the impression that would make.