The future of the remodeling workforce is alive and well in Lincoln, Neb., where the nine employees of Brighton Construction are still excited about their careers in a profession that young white American guys — let's face it — aren't exactly flocking to in droves.
At the top is Fernando Pagés Ruiz, president, who grew up in Argentina and New York, speaks several languages, studied art and became a contractor in Los Angeles, and moved to Lincoln in 1992, drawn by its strong public schools and thriving construction market.
There are Anselmo Cazun Mijangos and his brother Leon, young Guatemalans who are outstanding painters but will gladly take on other tasks, from carpentry to welding to IT work. There is Anh Tran, who emigrated to Lincoln from central Vietnam in 1990 and is remarkable with numbers, Pagés says.
There's also carpenter Esteban Lisak, born in Argentina to Russian parents; carpenters Mario and Jaime Perez Garcia, from Mexico; and even three native-born Americans: Ron Carroll, a superintendent from Virginia and one of the few black trim carpenters in Lincoln; and a married couple named Larry and Barbara Douglas, native Nebraskans who are construction manager and sales/purchasing manager, respectively.
Brighton Construction is diverse by design; its niches include affordable housing and multi-cultural clients. Pagés is also a diversity consultant and a published author. But he genuinely enjoys being with people from diverse cultures; warming up to unfamiliar accents and customs isn't that different from acquiring a taste for sushi or hummus, he says.
More to the point, he wants other remodelers to know that it's really not that difficult — or risky — to successfully, profitably, and legally employ immigrants. Yes, you may need to take a bit more time to get to know one another and to train them in your company's ways. But the payoff is, more often than not, worth it. “Regardless of your opinion,” Pagés says, “most of the up-and-coming workforce is foreign-born.”
FILLING THE GAPS The geographic bull's-eye of the U.S. map, Nebraska is typically one of the last places where coastal-born trends eventually drift. In the context of ethnic diversity, this means that when Pagés moved to Lincoln 15 years ago, just 2% of the city's population was non-white. “I went to the Lincoln Hispanic Center and there were no Hispanics!” he says wryly.
The intervening years have brought dramatic change to Lincoln as they have to other small cities. Pagés says that non-whites comprise 15% of the city's population today, with people from Sudan and Iraq's Kurdish territory rounding out the larger mix of Asians, Latin Americans, and Eastern Europeans. “The population grew from refugee relocation primarily,” he says, “but also from families moving in to consolidate family groups. Foreigners do that.”
Needless to say, foreigners are doing that all over the country, with improbable places absorbing the largest recent impact. (See “Immigration Snapshots,” at right.) What's more, when remodelers wonder who will step in when their aging carpenters hang up their toolbelts, the answer seems obvious. On average, immigrants are younger than the U.S.-born population; but also, anecdotally, they are more drawn to occupations that young Americans are rejecting en route to the “knowledge economy,” spurred on by cutbacks in vocational education and growing pressure to attend college.
“No one grows up saying, ‘Oooh, I'm going to be a carpenter!' anymore,” says remodeler Ron Cowgill, who owns D/R Services Unlimited in Glenview, Ill. Most of the vocational schools in his area have closed, and those that remain may face their biggest threats in ambitious parents and high school guidance counselors. Cowgill says his nephew was discouraged from going to an auto trade school because “they told him he was too smart.”