There is a de facto foundation upholding the construction industry with hardy bonds between the incredible workforces from all walks of life; which give the monumental infrastructure the strength to continuously expand and make the city of Houston, Texas thrive. This strong foundation was built with the devotion of hardworking individuals unifying their skills in the trade to create the precious buildings, roadways, and bridges we all rely on. There is a rhythm to how these structures are built, and it takes the right workforce and skill to maintain this delicate process. Before you even see the safety vests and work boots on the work field, there are individuals orchestrating the tremendous task of bidding for the work, filing the right paperwork, and preparing the work field. Work laborers then take the daunting task of building the proposed project with diligent haste. The administrative personnel and laborer workforce are juxtaposing forces that come together to cement the foundation of our highly intricate infrastructure.
(Foreman and laborer on look while an excavator demolishes a street)
Even though there is a segregation between blue and white collar workers in construction, they have a mutualistic dependency between one another. If one fails to perform their tasks, the other will severely suffer in their performance as well. There are hardworking individuals on both sides that perform a vital role within the construction industry. You will see plenty of diligent secretaries taking in inquiries and manning the phones all day. Women and men serve their role of Accounts Payable and Human Resources so that the company is financially responsible with their business and employees. Often you will walk into a construction office and be greeted by a warm smile and a “Hola!” or “Howdy!” that carries absolute southern hospitality. Spanish is very common to hear among the staff as there are a large portion of the construction community that speaks it as a primary language. Bilingualism is a very useful skill that fortifies the communication between native Spanish speakers and English speakers both in and out of the work field. There are sometimes language barriers on both sides of the construction industry, and it is common to see both sides learn useful niche phrases to communicate between each other. After many years learning from one another, you will hear of people becoming fluent in either Spanish or English through the interactions on the field.
The Spanish language and Latino cultural identity are strongly present among the construction sites. Come midday and you will see and hear the bawdy banter, often in Spanglish, over homemade traditional foods or delectable food truck tacos. Most of the men boast about their spouses cooking, while others reminisce of their significant others they have left back in their home country. It is relatively common to hear of migrants struggling to adjust and assimilate to the American culture, especially when they miss their culture and family. These struggles are common among the laborers arising sympathetic gestures like sharing food truck tacos, Mexican tortas, Salvadoran pupusas, or good ole’ sandwiches with one another to combat the woes of separation nostalgia. These small gestures form strong bonds between the crews no matter what country of origin they may come from.
Culture exchange happens regularly between the colorful cultural backgrounds of the labor force. Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, Mexicans, Cubans, and plenty of other Hispanic nationalities intermingle on the jobsite. Recently, I sampled a small crew of twelve laborers and inquired about their country of origin. Out of the twelve laborers, eight identified as Honduran, one from Guatemala, and three from Mexico. Even though most of the workers speak Spanish, there are various idiosyncrasies that differ between their cultures. Accents, mannerisms, and phrases are interchanged between years of camaraderie within their crews. These cultural exchanges are an important empathetic phenomenon that attest cultural tolerance. Racial tensions between these Latino nationalities are softened by exchanging similar experiences, ideas, and struggles. Many of these workers have suffered the effects of civil war and social prosecution in their home countries. They communicate and empathize with each other, often regarding themselves as family. Through the usage of a common language, many of the migrant laborers network within the construction community. They tend to move together within their crews if an employer is known to mistreat or take advantage of their situation. These dynamics provide a defense mechanism against overbearing authority in some construction companies.
As I banter more with these twelve laborers the topic of the current U.S. political climate arose and an unsettling mood became palpable between these men. Many of their smirking faces changed when asked about their future in this country, and an uncomfortable silence spoke louder than their responses. All twelve agreed that the current administration is not in their favor, and amid meek remarks over what they would do if faced with deportation their demeanor over the subject felt almost taboo. Many of these men were fathers and providers for American children, and deportation would be devastating for these men and their families. The roots that tie these immigrants to American society are their American born children, the homes some built with American spouses, and the access to an income that sustained their humble lifestyle that would otherwise be impossible back in their home countries. The fear of uprooting their current lifestyle, starting from scratch once more, and the dangers of returning to a hostile country are one of the many realities many will face with this current political administration. They will not be the only victims to the upcoming persecution of unauthorized workers due to how heavily rooted these workers are to various work industries and the American status quo.
Immigrant workforce is incredibly prominent within the Texas construction industry. Roughly, sixty percent of this “domestic outsourcing” are of foreign Latino origin (Stoll 79). These skilled undocumented workers perform backbreaking labor at barely poverty-level wages, often paid cash by contractors to avoid government tax. Exploitation of these workers is commonplace and contractors are eager to make their bank accounts great again with less legal liability to the American government. This dependency of foreign labor creates a cheaper cost overhead when building multi-million dollar public projects; therefore, the cost to build these structures would inflate at the expense of the average American tax payer if we completely remove it. Regulations are evaded by both migrants and American industries and a call to revamp an antiquated immigration system is much needed. Comprehensive Immigration Reform (CIR) would benefit undocumented workers with a pathway to legal status, add stronger border security, and approximately thwart unauthorized migration by approximately 33 to 55 percent (Stoll 83). CIR could potentially tip the balance back between the exploitation of unauthorized workers, tax evasions, and the flow of illegal migration from poor Latin American countries. It is imperative to address this ongoing issue, and provide the proper legislation that will benefit the American economy while preventing the exploitation of unauthorized workers.
Providing fair working conditions and abiding by the Equal Employment Opportunity laws should always be a top priority for any construction firm. These clauses are there to protect individuals of discrimination, and the administration of any construction company should uphold these laws and hire a diverse workforce. I was fortunate to be mentored alongside a myriad of different types of folks from all walks of life. One of my coworkers was a young woman named Rosario Belmonte who had experienced working in the administration side of construction as office manager. I have recently asked how she felt about being female in a predominantly male dominated work environment. Belmonte stated “I do not think women get fair treatment in construction. I feel that they are seen as weak and not able to work as hard as men…” I sympathize with her, and I realize that there are still much to do about the “machista” culture within this industry. Women should to be paid equally, given the same opportunities to work the field alongside men regardless of gender stereotypes, and should be given the same respect as their male co-workers.
In a survey conducted by Texas Construction titled “Texas Women in Construction Making a Difference” in 2001, four women from various ages, job positions, and academic backgrounds were asked about their experiences in the construction industry. Three out of the four participants stated that the construction industry has become more receptive to women over the years. One women stated a need to “demand the respect they deserve, especially from other women” (Witherspoon). The consensus of these women is that the construction industry’s gender norms have shifted and progressed throughout the years. With more diversity in the workplace, women are now taking positions of greater influence within the field thus broadening and redefining how women are perceived in the construction industry. If we dissect this idea and raise the question: are women required to “act like men” for them to succeed in a “male-dominated” work environment? I believe that women in this industry bring their own merits and accomplishments that distinguish themselves among our work peers regardless of their gender. The equality of the sexes will always be questioned, challenged, and redefined; coincidentally, women in this industry will continue to inspire and transcend beyond gender stereotypes.
(Heavy concrete blocks being removed by hand)
Women have a significant role within the construction industry on both sides of the field. Many hardworking women can be seen manning water trucks, flagging traffic, and are also skilled with manual labor. These roles are traditionally seen as “masculine work” and often male dominated. Boldly, these women take on these roles and challenge the gender norms while greatly exceling amongst their male peers. More and more women are putting on work gloves to pursue a great career path as they climb the work ladder to positions that are typically reserved for the “stereotypical roughnecks.” Having more women being empowered and encouraged to break the glass ceiling in this industry will greatly impact the way we view manual labor positions. No longer would we be associating daintiness as a default when considering females in these positions. With greater representation, women will change the face of construction for the greater good while simultaneously diversifying the field.
Here in Texas, there is a large community of minority owned construction business owners operating besides large veteran companies to further diversifying the industry. Many of those business owners are women, African Americans, Latino Americans, and Asian Americans. This government program involves “disadvantaged minorities” in participating and competing for state controlled projects. Thus, this program offers the opportunity to expand business beyond the major established construction companies to reduce monopolization. These efforts create an even playing field dynamic between established construction firms and small, family-owned disadvantaged businesses.
I am fortunate to know many of these disadvantaged business owners, and through their guiding experience I am succeeding within the construction administration field. These individuals are part of my personal growth, and have provided a foundation for me to professionally build upon. A former colleague named Patricia Wickers has been in and out of the construction industry for twenty-four years and covered business administration from the basics to business ownership. Recently, I asked her the secret to her success to which she responded, “You know, people will write you off before even giving you a chance. It will always be your job to show them different, no matter how frustrating that may be.” Mrs. Wicker’s journey in the construction industry was no easy feat. Not only did Mrs. Wickers prevail in a male dominated industry; as an African American woman, she dealt with snide racism from male peers that would underestimate her efforts. “When I was working in Dallas I had a lot of trouble with the ‘good ole boys’ sometimes. I don’t see much of it down here (Houston), but I do have trouble sometimes understanding (Spanish) what the guys are saying.” Mrs. Wicker’s experience is a great example of cultural exchange between immigrant workforces, women, and the disadvantaged minority owned construction businesses.
My father would also know a thing or two about being underestimated. After nine years of knowing the struggles of being an entrepreneur in the construction industry he has seen his fair share of frustration. It was not an easy journey from the start, and he often recollects times where business came before the simplest necessities. The construction industry tends to be extremely competitive when it comes to niche services, and sometimes bids would fail to go through which could mean trouble when it came to paying bills. The biggest concern even to this day is the fact that getting paid could take months depending on the source of the contracts. Construction can be a very lucrative business venture, only when you know what you are doing, and how well you can stretch a dollar. I asked my father his reasons why he choose to work in construction, which is sternly responded, “My father, and his father were builders. We come from a linage of engineering Architects who built churches, farms, markets, and haciendas. It is in our blood and heritage, and I could not ignore following along their journey.”
In a way, the journey of how my father has founded his small business has always made a deep personal impact in how I view my journey. From humble beginnings in Las Vegas, N.V., he began as a laborer at a small pool construction company managed by the daughter of the owner. He conquered the language barrier early, and ascended the ranks to supervisory roles in many prestigious underground construction companies. The life long bonds he made along the way helped him network his way to Texas, where he managed to fund his small company on the many years of backbreaking dedication. His story is one of many inspiring stories of the men and women in the construction field who have sacrificed years of work for a better opportunity.
My journey is now cemented in this community, as far back as my childhood, and it continues to inspire and push me to be a stronger individual. I see the bonds between my work, my fellow co-workers, and the back-breaking effort it takes for these structures to be built. The whole construction field works together as one to take on the most difficult of projects. The sheer drive of every individual regardless of gender, creed, race, and orientation carries a strength to build better roads to a much brighter future. Every effort is taken into consideration and the foundation we provide today will set the groundwork for the future generations of American builders. When we the people begin to trust in this strong foundation; we will be able to build bridges that transcend any obstacles along the way.
(Laborers cleaning concrete riprap from a trench)
Belmonte, Rosario. Personal Interview. 13 Feb. 2017
Guerrero, Wenceslao “Leo”. Construction photos. 19 Apr. 2017
Stoll, David. “Comprehensive Immigration Reform and U.S. Labor Markets: Dilemmas for Progressive Labor.” New Labor Forum (Sage Publications Inc.), Vol. 24 Issue 1, p76-85. 1 Jan. 2015, Accessed 3 Apr. 2017. EBSCOhost, http://lscsproxy.lonestar.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,cpid&custid=s1088435&db=a9h&AN=100709985&site=ehost-live
Wickers, Patricia. Personal Interview. 12 Feb. 2017
Witherspoon, Sandy, et al. “Texas Women in Construction Making a Difference.” Texas Construction, 10th ed., vol. 9, Texas Reference Center, October 2001, EBSCOhost, lscsproxy.lonestar.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,cpid&custid=s1088435&db=tih&AN=5497060&site=ehost-live. Accessed 19 Apr. 2017.