In general, management needs to do a better job of communicating safety to the Hispanic workforce.


The Hispanic workforce is unique to our contemporary business environment. As a group of people, this workforce is considered to be critical to the success of the construction industry. At the same time, members of the Hispanic workforce have special training needs that their Anglo counterparts do not have. There are five critical training needs for your Spanish-speaking employees.

Life Skills Training

Let me be clear: Hispanics are not anti-American. Many, however, are unfamiliar with accepted social norms in the United States.

They might not be familiar with some simple things that, in the United States, we take for granted - things like not bribing a police officer, not driving under the influence of alcohol, and understanding that a hospital is not a government agency - as in Latin America - and you don't have to worry about the hospital checking for documentation.

Did you know that many Hispanics are afraid to call the police when in need because they fear deportation? They do not understand that local law enforcement agencies have no jurisdiction in immigration and, for the most part (with a few sad and illegal exceptions), never ask about the status of one's documentation in this country.

In Latin America, it is common to have the police officer take care of our traffic tickets for us. We sometimes give the money to the police officer and he takes it to the court for us. This is a cultural reality. It is not important here whether or not you think this is ethical; it just is. Culture just is, my friend. But - and here's the problem - what is common in Latin America isn't necessarily accepted in the United States, and may land one of your employees in jail - or, at the least, result in a hefty fine. Thus, we need life-skills training, specifically life-skills in the United States.

Safety Training

We are a passionate group of people. Our machismo, along with the fact that we tend to live life with a good deal of passion, can be a safety director's worst nightmare. The national accident rate in the construction industry among Mexicans is four times that of their Anglo counterparts, according to an Associated Press study. Some people say the ratio is as high as 8 to 1, but let's take the low number just to be conservative. In other words, if you have the same number of Mexicans and the same number of Anglos, four Mexicans would get hurt for each Anglo. This is due to several factors

First off, management normally does a poor job of communicating safety to the Hispanic workforce. Many times safety talks are sporadic, and, even when consistently given, are translated by a person on the job who may or may not be translating correctly - not to mention whether or not this person is a good communicator in Spanish. In other words, does the translator reach the people with his voice and manner?

Of course, we are not even considering here whether the safety talk itself is culturally relevant to the Hispanic mind, as this is a subject within itself. Even worse is when companies simply translate written safety documents into Spanish. Very few of these are read by the Hispanic workers.

Secondly, machismo is a real issue that must be understood to properly train safety to the Latino male. It is not within the scope of this article to discuss the intricacies of the roots and repercussions of machismo in our society, but suffice it to say that it does affect our view and practice of safety in the workplace, specifically among males. Many companies find it very difficult to get workers to abide by OSHA standards as simple as the wearing of hardhats on the jobsite.

Thirdly, let's face it, a lot of Hispanic workers have gone through the danger of crossing the border, not once, but several times. This is dangerous. To many of these people, it just doesn't make sense to build scaffolding just because they are higher than 6 feet off the ground, as OSHA requires.

Leadership Training

There is no doubt in my mind that this absolutely is the most strategic and important area of training that needs to be emphasized within the Latino community. For the most part, our people have not learned to lead well.

We have suffered from centuries of corrupt leadership in our native countries. Often, we have viewed father figures who, for lack of a better way to put it, have not led by example or service to the family - or their workers, if they were privileged to be a business owner. This is a sad, but true, reality.

Generally speaking, we have not learned solid communication, organizational and management skills. We know even less about the inner workings of a company founded and incorporated in the United States.

Many, perhaps most, Hispanics in supervisory positions throughout the construction industry are in these positions primarily because they are, to some measure, bilingual, not because of their leadership skills. Most have been promoted from the labor force, not hired to be a supervisor.

These people control a large portion of the information stream between management (typically English-speaking) and the Spanish-speaking workforce. Each day, they must choose their loyalties between their own countrymen and their company. This is a difficult position to be in, to be sure.

Leadership training is an acute area of need as surveys conclusively show that most Latinos prefer an American supervisor simply because they typically have better organizational and management skills.

The people who need to learn English are those who aspire to business, corporate or political success.

English Training

The debate rages across the country from the local bars to the highest offices of government. These people come to our country and they should learn English!

Now, I believe they should learn English, but not because of the reasons you may think. First of all, let's clarify one thing here. If you hire someone and you are the leader, you have the responsibility to communicate with the people you hire. In other words, if you hire people you know do not speak English, then the responsibility is upon you to speak their language. If you don't want to face this, then you shouldn't hire them in the first place. This is what leaders do; they communicate with their followers.

Legally, you also have this responsibility. Esto, mi amigo, es la verdad. (This, my friend, is the truth.) Many companies are challenged in court on this matter and consistently lose. You are responsible for communicating with your employees, not vice versa. In other words, before any English training is done, some serious Spanish training should be implemented among your key management and supervisory personnel.

Now, this being said, I do believe it is important for Hispanics to speak both Spanish and English. Not because they are in the United States, but because English is a critical language for business success in this country and around the globe. Many people do not need to learn English if their only goal is to come here to make some money and leave, or live within the Hispanic subculture. The people who need to learn are those who aspire to business, corporate or political success in the United States.

There are plenty of areas in this country where you need absolutely zero English to function well. Obviously, I speak both languages. If you ever hear me speak, you will hear that I speak English very well. Of course, it is important to me to be a leader, not a laborer. However, not all people aspire to leadership, and this should be both understood and respected.

Should you offer English training to everyone in your company? Absolutely not. You should train English strategically to people who will use it to benefit the organization. These would be present or future supervisors. These are the people who should be learning English or improving their present English skills.

Job Skills

This is last on our list but probably the most important to you as a business leader. You certainly want to make sure that your people can do the job correctly.

Here's the unique factor in training of your Hispanic workers: You must recognize that many of your laborers have a low level of formal education. This means that their reading and writing skills are many times weak, and sometimes almost nonexistent.

From a job skills training standpoint, this means that you must do your training by demonstration, demonstration and demonstration. They must be able to see and touch what they are being taught. You cannot effectively train job skills to this populace through books or written materials.

Make sure that you use a lot of visual demonstration when training this workforce. Videos are good but do not allow for the actual touching and doing aspect of learning. I prefer live training with a trained trainer working with the new employees.

Remember that most accidents happen within one week to two weeks of a new employee's time with a company. Do not let people just “go out and learn the job” on the jobsite with a co-worker. Make sure you take the time to train people correctly.

Far too many companies just put bodies on the jobsite and then lament the consequences. This is a foolish business practice. Every company should have a trained trainer who knows how to train new employees their job responsibilities before they are sent out on the jobsite to work alongside of fellow workers.

This not only is wise, it is humane. I pray for the day when all companies will recognize that to put an untrained and unconfident worker on a job site without proper training is not only asking for a serious lost-time accident (and perhaps death), it is an unjust and inhumane work practice.

These five critical training issues are unique in many ways to the Spanish-speaking culture and workforce within the United States. Most of us who work or consult in the construction industry recognize the incredible value of the Hispanic workforce to our economic and corporate health.

As we benefit from this workforce, let us all remember that the goal of our leadership should be to elevate, benefit and protect those we serve. We are servants of our people, and I ask all of us who are leaders to seriously consider proper training practices among our wonderful Hispanic people.
ND