By Sue McCraven
Editor’s Note: “Precaster’s Perspective” offers a precast concrete manufacturer’s point of view on an issue of concern to the industry. Precast Inc. magazine welcomes reader comments on each topic. Opinions expressed are those of the individuals quoted and do not reflect a position by NPCA or its officers.
Currently, the federal Immigration Service estimates that there are more than 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States. Many Americans, including President Obama, believe that the nation’s immigration laws need to be overhauled. Visa restrictions often keep “guest worker” immigrants in temporary status without benefits or job protections. Polls indicate that some citizens worry that immigrants may take jobs away from Americans, especially during this time of high unemployment. Others think that U.S. workers never were – and are not presently— interested in low-skill jobs in border states, where immigrants have traditionally fill unskilled, labor-intensive positions. In this “Precaster’s Perspective” NPCA takes a look at the pros and cons of immigrant labor in the precast industry.
NPCA senior technical consultant Sue McCraven interviews members from different parts of the country: William T. “W.T.” Gill, president, Texas Precast LLC, Santa Fe, Texas; Dan T. Houk, president, Wilbert Precast Inc., Spokane, Wash.; and J. Kirby O’Malley, president, Garden State Precast Inc., Farmingdale, N.J., for their opinions on immigration in the current economic and employment conditions.
Q. In your opinion, should the United States make it easier to hire legal “guest worker” immigrants to perform necessary labor-intensive work in this country?
A. Gill: Definitely. We can’t sustain the economy in our country without immigrant labor. It is difficult today to find people who will do the hard work we need done in this industry. Young people today want to sit behind a computer.
A. Houk: The key word in your question is “easier.” With today’s technology, there should be a way to hire legal “guest workers” that would be of a temporary nature to fill job vacancies needed to get necessary work done at a wage that is competitive in a global marketplace. By being temporary, shifts in the number of this type of visa can fluctuate with economic conditions and demands on labor. We were all immigrants at one point in our history. That decision should be left up to the individual owners and management of each plant. Different parts of the country rely more or less heavily on immigrant labor. Again, whether it is our industry or any other, this should be a decision based the business plan of each entity.
A. O’Malley: Yes, I think that the U.S. should make it easier to hire legal guest workers. Currently, we check for a valid social security number, green card and driver’s license – all of these items can be illegally obtained for less than $1,000. The verification process does not always reveal the validity of these documents. We recently lost two good employees who we learned had illegal documentation. Garden State Precast spent time and money training them, thinking that we had good, long-term employees. We need to do a better job of getting accurate information so that when we hire, we can be assured of getting someone we can keep. If an employer has verification that documents were illegally obtained, he has no choice but to terminate the employee.
“We can’t sustain the economy in our country without immigrant labor” – W.T. Gill
Q. Do workers with temporary visa status and illegal aliens take jobs away from U.S. citizens who are seeking work? Does immigrant labor compete with American workers for positions in precast manufacturing plants?
A. O’Malley: When unemployment was 3 to 4 percent, the answer was no. With the current unemployment approaching 10 percent, I do believe that illegal immigrants are taking positions that would be filled by U.S. citizens. But again, because of the difficulty in discerning the documentation, we do not know which immigrant workers are illegal. Currently, Garden State Precast has employees from 17 different countries.
For the past 15 years, we’ve enjoyed a strong economy. Because of this, we’ve relied on immigrants who are willing to work hard. Our younger generation has not been willing to do so; in the last six months, economic pressures have changed this. We’ve hired young American workers who need to work and are now willing to perform. In the past, I believed that immigrant labor didn’t take jobs from U.S. workers, but I see that changing now. I also believe that during the last two decades, we’ve turned out high school graduates who want to develop video games as opposed to developing the character required for manufacturing – discipline, desire, accountability.
A. Gill: No, I don’t believe so. All our workers at Texas Precast have papers. Right now, work has slowed down in our industry as a whole and many of the legal immigrant Mexican workers have gone back home. It is beyond me why some people believe that we should make it harder on immigrants seeking work in America. I’m Scotch-Irish and at one point in history, like every other American, my forefathers were immigrants to this country. Every generation of Americans has its wave of immigration and immigrant labor. Here in the middle of Texas, for example, there is a large population of German immigrants.
A. Houk: It is a fact that illegal aliens take jobs away from U.S. citizens who are seeking work. This would be the case until we reach 100 percent employment. Legal immigrant labor may compete with American workers, but the numbers of legal immigrants may be monitored and changed as needed as economic and labor needs change. There is nothing wrong with employees competing for jobs and the employer choosing the best person for the job based on skill level, performance and pay.
“It is a fact that illegal aliens take jobs away from U.S. citizens who are seeking work.” – Dan T. Houk
Q. With so many Americans having lost their jobs and homes in the current recession, some recent polls suggest that citizens feel more strongly that the current level of immigration is too high and has negative impacts on the job security for American workers and on the country as a whole. Is the current level of immigration too high?
A. Houk: This is exactly the kind of question that should be asked at the office of immigration control. Immigration control should be in direct communication with the White House council for economic forecasting and be directed as the economy dictates. I am not sure if the current level of legal immigration is too high but I am quite sure the level of illegal immigration is.
A. Gill: We have to be careful here and remember that when times are bad, folks look for what they think are the causes of the problem. Sometimes immigration as a political issue is a good place to lay the blame when the economy is in tough shape.
A. O’Malley: Assuming that we are speaking of legal immigrants, no, I do not think that our levels of immigration are too high. Competition is necessary for capitalism to succeed. The law of supply and demand requires that industry find ways to reduce costs, not through lower wages but with a workforce that is trained, dedicated and compensated fairly.
“In the past, I believed that immigrant labor didn’t take jobs from U.S. workers, but I see that changing now.” – J. Kirby O’Malley
Q. Currently, 5 percent of the U.S. workforce is comprised of undocumented workers who are not covered by minimum wage, OSHA and labor laws. The AFL-CIO and unions in general support comprehensive immigration reform where undocumented immigrants are legalized, protected by labor laws and pay taxes. Many employers of immigrant labor benefit by paying lower wages than competitors who must pay resident worker wages and benefits. Is it important to establish a level playing field? Does the precast industry currently have a level playing field in your opinion?
A. Gill: We pay our employees the same rate whether they are legal immigrants or residents of the country. So for us, yes, I believe it is a level playing field. We need to remember that Mexican immigrants are no different than any other group of immigrants who came to this country to find a better life over the generations. Here in Texas, the state’s southern communities look much the same as a community in Mexico – the people are the same. So we have a different outlook, or attitude, toward immigration issues here in Texas, I would say a more open-minded and fair approach to immigrant labor and the challenges they face.
A. O’Malley: No. America wasn’t built on a “level playing field.” Capitalism and free enterprise cannot exist within a false operating environment. It is, however, the responsibility of businessmen to do the legal and moral thing. The unions have no place in this process – we are not a socialistic society. In business, we do keep score. In a free enterprise society, the idea of a level playing field can’t exist.
A. Houk: This entire question revolves around the laws that are already in place and need to be enforced. Undocumented and illegal aliens, working or not, should be required to go through the proper channels to be in the country in a legal way. I would not be opposed to having an amnesty period that illegal aliens could come forward to be sponsored by employers to become legal documented workers who would pay taxes. They would then receive normal benefits for the type of work they are performing. Our area does not have a high concentration of new immigrants. I could see problems in Texas and other areas where some are playing by the rules and others are not. Those with a practice of hiring illegal aliens should face stiff penalties and be forced to do business under the hiring guidelines that are already established.
W.T. Gill is owner/manager of Texas Precast LLC in Santa Fe, Texas, a company that he and his wife have owned for 15 years. Gill has degrees in industrial engineering and electronics with 17 years experience in the electronics industry. Gill served in the Air Force, owned several other companies, and worked in various fields besides electronics and the precast industry, such as painting, carpentry, oilfield roughneck, plumbing, and farming/ranching.
Dan Houk is the President and CEO of Wilbert Precast Inc. After graduating in construction management at Washington State University in 1981, he began his career at Wilbert Precast, which is now in its fourth generation. The company has three manufacturing plants and more than 100 employees.
Kirby O’Malley is president of Garden State Precast Inc. in Farmingdale, N.J. He and his partners – brother Gene O’Malley and longtime friend Dan Morris – established Garden State Precast more than 10 years ago. A graduate of West Virginia Institute of Technology, O’Malley began in the precast industry in 1970 with Interpace Corp. in East Brunswick, N.J., and has worked in several states and foreign countries. He has served on several NPCA committees and is the chairman-elect of the NPCA board of directors.