Monday, May 15, 2006

a tale of two cultures

Tale of Two Cultures:

It is hard to overstate how many Hispanic workers are in the city of New Orleans now. They are on construction sites all over the city, and I have personally seen guys who know no English working on public schools and for FEMA road cleaning crews. This is in a city that last year had no signs of Hispanics when I visited for long weekend wedding. Most of them are originally from Mexico and Honduras. They are regularly a topic of discussion at the Mayoral debates. (Those are forums where the candidates for an office have an intelligent discussion about their differing views on how to make a City better, very popular in open liberal western democracys)

There are a few places to get day laborers, but the main place is Robert E. Lee Circle a main crossroads area just beside downtown. Every morning there are 50 to 100 people looking for work. The going rate is 100 to 120 dollars a day, cash. Interestingly enough, more than the pay at McDonalds or other entry level jobs here, and of course that is without withholding, etc.

I recently needed some day laborers to do some cleanup on a job here. I was about to take a couple of Hispanic Americans to do the work, when a couple of native born guys from Michigan came up and asked if they could get some work. I explained exactly what the job was(cleaning debris from under a house), how much it paid, and how long the day was. They said “no problem” and explained they were looking for permanent work. I told them I always have a need for responsible, productive workers and if they worked out well, I could use people fulltime.

My experience was typical with native born Americans, before they started they talked about how experienced and reliable they are and how much they want a job. Then they get into the job, which is dirty and uncomfortable, as described, and they start to complain a bit. A few hours later, they are openly saying they aren’t getting paid enough for the job, finally near the end of the day they revolt and quit before the agreed upon time, usually with comments about the work being beneath them, or whatever, with demands for immediate payment when they want to quit, a couple hours before the end of the workday. Of course, I pay them and their time with me is done, as they kick away steady employment to go back and wait with the multitudes at Lee Circle.

The next day, I hired two Hispanic Americans to do the same job on the other half of the building. No complaints, good attitude, friendly and joking. They came back and worked a second day for me.

About a week later, I had to get under the house where the two crews had been working to start redoing the plumbing systems on the house. I first went under the Native Born American side, and was generally pleased that they guys had done a good job in difficult circumstances, thinking to myself that it was too bad they didn’t stick it out. Then I went under the Hispanic American side, and their cleanup job was far superior, it was like the dirt under the house had been prepared to become a putting green. A truly exemplary job had been done, with a better attitude. Who would you rather hire?

A week or two later, I was working on the roof and again I needed help. Again I went to Lee Circle where I had agreed to hire dos personas Hispanic, when another Native Born American came up and said he was experienced in construction and could do roofing and asked for a job. I said sure, I’ll give you a chance. All three of the guys worked out OK for the day, and we agreed to be at work the next morning at 7:30. The Native Born American then started asking insistently for me to give him a ride to the place he was staying, I told him no, I still was working and had to take advantage of all the daylight hours I could. He got to be a bit annoying; can you imagine begging someone who just hired you for a ride, and being annoying to them????

The next morning, the Hispanic guys were there right on time at siete y media (7:30) and we started pounding away on the roof in the 90 degree weather. Around 9 am the Native Born American came by and I asked where he had been, and he started making up excuses. Needless to say, I told him he wasn’t needed.

I’ve discussed with many people who try and help people to be ready for the workforce, from the Veteran’s Administration, to Madison Park High School Teachers. It is amazing the low level of understanding of what it takes to be a successful employee. If you are not going to get a good education, the low skill workforce is going to become increasingly more difficult with more competition, which is going to keep wages stagnant. There are people who want to work and who are willing to work. Many people have an air of expectancy: “I deserve better than this”, but if people don’t want to do the work to be educated, reliable and valuable they will quickly learn there are others who can take these low skilled jobs, that are more motivated and hardworking and who see work not as demeaning, but as a step to something better.

Meanwhile, my wife tells me my Spanish is getting better all the time!!!

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