Immigrants Flock to Construction Jobs

9 years 10 months 1 week ago November 22, 2006 Nov 22, 2006 Wednesday, November 22 2006 Wednesday, November 22, 2006 7:20:36 PM CST in News

That could be because the work is familiar, and it's a high-paying job that doesn't require mastery of the English language. But, what about other immigrants who take jobs that do require English skills? How do immigrants choose their jobs? And how do employers deal with the language barrier?

"A lot of it is, these guys work hard, and they want to work," said Kevin Nichols, a DJ Roofing Supply manager. "They work sunup to sundown and not cry about it."

A September 2006 Pew Hispanic Center study said Hispanics account for 40 percent of the growth in the U.S. labor market in the past fiscal year. Most jobs were in construction. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said a five-year housing boom attracted thousands of immigrant workers.

Silvino and Brandie Garay took advantage of that boom three years ago by starting Garay's Roofing in Columbia, one of the few Hispanic-owned companies in Boone County. The Missouri Economic Research and Information Center reported only 3.4 percent of all firms in the county were Hispanic-owned in 2002.

But Silvino Garay doesn't think ownership makes a big difference because he relies on good recommendations for workers. As he puts it, the "work talks."

Hispanic-owned businesses do attract immigrant workers.

"Him being the owner of a construction company, the owner of a roofing company, they're like, 'Can you give me a job?'" Brandie Garay said.

However, Nichols of DJ Roofing Supply said construction in general attracts workers.

"If you're up on a roof, you know what you're up against. Doesn't matter what language you speak," he said.

But, working for a textbook distributor is about language. And a different group of immigrant workers, Bosnians, is attracted to textbook distributing.

MBS in Columbia employs about 80 of them, almost 10 percent of its workforce.

The International Institute in St. Louis reports the Bosnian immigrant population in that city has grown from less than 100 in 1990 to about 30,000 today.

So, how do immigrants with few or no English skills wind up in a textbook factory?

"Gave them the start they needed in the community, provided them with some other resources they need," explained Jerome Rader, MBS vice president of human resources. "Not all of them have very strong English skills, so we provided English as a Second Language classes here, on site, in all three of our shifts."

And MBS hired a translator.

"My main department is shelving, but mainly they use me for interpretation for benefits and enrollment, for reviews at one month, at three months," MBS translator Senad Music said.

One female employee told Rader she wanted to work parttime until her baby grew up. Music was her translator.

"When someone tells you, in your own language, 'This is f1 [on a keyboard], this is f5 [on a keyboard], this is your PIN, this is your name,' when you hear it one time, second time, third time, you can teach somebody else," Music said.

Sanela Veldar-Hamzic escaped from war-torn Bosnia 10 years ago. She has worked at MBS for 7 years, advancing to become one of the company's computer programmers.

"I really expected that my first job in America is going to be a geat job because I was sure I can do it," Veldar-Hamzic said, "but then nobody gave me a chance until I started school."

However, her upward mobility also required hard work.

"As long as you have an accent, I think you have to have a degree," Veldar-Hamzic said.

And, many Bosnians feel, they also need a security blanket of fellow immigrants for support and for jobs.

"My family's all here, my cousins, brothers, sisters, aunts, everybody, everybody," Music said, "and most of them work in MBS."

Veldar-Hamzic agreed, up to a point.

"Having a community is a great thing, and its support," she said. "But to completely adjust, at some point, they have to get out."

For Veldar-Hamzic, the most difficult part of being an immigrant was feeling like one.

"It takes a long time to feel like you belong somewhere, and stop feeling as a stranger," she said. "That's really the hardest part, to overcome the feeling that you just came over here to work."

While working is the main goal for many immigrants, pay plays a role in what jobs they choose.

Thursday night in our "Immigrant In-Depth" series, KOMU looks at the wage issue, and if unions embrace immigrant workers.

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