Jobs Americans Used to Do

By Mark Krikorian on October 16, 2008

Shocking news from the job front — immigration enforcement is actually prompting one of D.C.'s biggest construction companies to focus on recruiting and retaining American workers. Or, as the story in today's Post puts it, "With federal immigration authorities stepping up workplace raids across the country, Miller & Long's management is getting nervous about relying heavily on non-citizen workers." The result? A campaign by the firm to "diversify its mostly Latino workforce":

So this spring, Gladstone pulled Brown from his job as a carpenter foreman to lead the campaign. At least once a week, Brown makes the rounds of job-training classes sponsored by church groups, government ex-offender programs or such nonprofit groups as Goodwill. Almost every day, he visits or calls a current black employee to offer encouragement and mediate conflicts.

Company officials say his efforts are bearing fruit: Until recently, black hires tended to quit within days or weeks. But only six of the 45 black workers recruited in the past two months have left.

Yet to follow Brown is also to glimpse why black residents remain underrepresented in construction regionally and nationally even as nearly one out of every 10 black men in the District and nationally is unemployed — about twice the rate for whites. Black high school graduates with solid work histories often assume construction is a dead-end job when they pass work sites filled with immigrants, Brown said. So his recruiting pool is largely made up of ex-offenders struggling to readjust to working life — and many don't succeed. Even the company's longtime black workers often chafe at the isolation on construction sites where few people speak English, and tensions between them and their Latino bosses can run high.

And for those on the right who tell me that they welcome illegal immigration as a way of liberating businesses from having to coddle lazy and shiftless blacks (or, in Frederick Douglass's words, "They want to be independent of their former slaves, and bring their noses to the grindstone"), I ask you this: What do you think these ex-cons are going to be doing if they're not encouraged "to readjust to working life" — go to law school? A tight labor market has to be an integral part of conservative social policy.

Finally, if you don't believe that immigration can rapidly colonize an occupation, turning it into a job Americans won't do, there's this:

But by the 1980s, as Miller & Long was becoming an industry giant of 2,500 employees, those early black workers began retiring. And the next generation was not eager to take their place. With the decline in wages for unskilled work, blue-collar jobs offered less assurance of a middle-class life. The civil rights movement had also expanded black Americans' access to college and career fields.

Central Americans fleeing civil wars offered a ready supply of construction workers. In less than a decade, Miller & Long's workforce changed from about 80 percent black and 20 percent white to 71 percent Latino, 17 percent white and 12 percent black.