Five years ago, my company, Waller Construction, bought a roofing operation and set it up as an in-house division. At the time, almost all the roofing installers were Hispanic, and they spoke only Spanish. Since then we've hired a few new roofers, but most of the installers working for Goff-Waller Roofing are still Hispanic and speak only Spanish. (We have one bilingual superintendent.) Of the 50 employees in our three divisions, about 12% speak only Spanish.

Roofing is one of the most difficult trades in which to maintain a high level of quality workmanship, customer service, and professionalism. I've found that our Hispanic employees are hard working and dedicated, but the Achilles' heel is the language barrier.

Service barriers

Customer service was the first problem we encountered. To me, sharing knowledge builds trust. We build trust into the sales appointment and into the pre-construction meeting. But if Mr. or Mrs. Homeowner can't communicate with our crew, problems arise.

For instance, our guys typically work until 5 or even 6 o'clock. We once had a homeowner who came home while the crew was still working. He asked them when they were going to be done, because he and his family were planning to sit down and have dinner shortly. The crew didn't understand him and couldn't answer his question, and six guys on a roof is pretty loud. The homeowner called me a day later. Up to that point, the job was excellent, but he ended up frustrated.

On another occasion, a three-day job, the customer came out and asked the crew if they could clean up periodically through the day instead of just before they left. Nothing happened, and again the customer became annoyed.

Owners' responsibilities

Ten years ago, Hispanics made up approximately 6% of the population of Polk County, Fla. Today it's 11%. Their speed, efficiency, and willingness to work have enabled them to dominate the landscaping, roofing, framing, and drywall trades. In my opinion, within 10 years, half the the roofing and construction trades in our area will be dominated by Spanish speakers.

We don't want to lose our employees because management doesn't speak Spanish. We don't want to lose them because we're not making the effort to step into their world. Therefore, this year our company budgeted money to launch a Spanish/English class. We hired a private tutor and began these classes in February. We feel this investment will pay large dividends in better customer service, employee development, and employee loyalty.

Become proactive

I think the concentration of immigrant labor in specific trades will only increase with time. As an owner, are you prepared for this adjustment? You might want to survey the landscape and see if this trend isn't already affecting your market. If it is, be proactive and develop a program to welcome, qualify, train, and invest in the lives of non-English-speaking employees.

By learning the language of a different culture, you will reap the benefits of better communication and fewer project problems. Your customers will show their appreciation by referring you to their friends, family, and neighbors. Your employees will become communicators, leaders, and ambassadors for your company. By sharing and encouraging knowledge, you'll not only be a builder of buildings but a builder of trust, relationships, and lasting value. --Jimmy Waller is vice president/development for Waller Construction, Lakeland, Fla. The company includes roofing, remodeling, new-home building, and insurance restoration divisions.