Challenges Posed by Language Barriers in Construction

On any construction site, effective communication is needed to maintain a safe and productive working environment. However, this requirement faces increased challenges as our global economy opens its doors to an international and migrating workforce – many of which are finding jobs in construction.

Construction Has the Greatest Workforce Language Skills Gap

Immigrant workers constitute nearly 25 percent of the overall construction workforce, according to a review of 2016 American Community Survey data by the National Association of Home Builders’ Housing Economics. It is understandable, then, that the resulting language barriers among workers are a growing concern in construction.

In 2019, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages published findings from a study that examined eight different industry sectors, including construction. The results show that the construction industry has the greatest foreign language skills gaps – 40% of construction employers indicated a foreign language skills gap within their company and 54% expected an increase in the demand for foreign language skills over the next five years.

Similar to other construction companies, Cleveland Construction has experienced a steady increase in the diversity of cultural backgrounds among our employees and contractors. With Hispanic and Latino workers representing a growing segment of the labor force, Spanish is the most common foreign language heard on the jobsite. As our workforce continues to diversify, there is a heightened need to prevent obstacles posed by language barriers. Forward-thinking companies realize that eliminating those barriers not only improves productivity but also minimizes health and safety risks.

Risks Associated With Language Barriers

Construction language barriers often lead to inefficiency and reduced productivity. The reality is it takes time for fellow workers to translate the many communications needed during daily activity to foreign-born contract workers. It can be a stressful process and lead to an increased risk of fatal injuries to foreign-born workers, particularly when conveying life-saving health and safety messages.

Language barriers may also impact employee orientation, skills assessment, and subsequent training, thereby leading to uncertainty of project-specific rules and policies, underutilized or unrecognized strengths, and an increased number of on-site accidents.

Mitigating Language Barriers

At Cleveland Construction, we suggest tackling foreign language skills gaps by implementing some of the basic, yet effective, procedures that have worked for us. These include the following:

  • Assess your organization’s language needs to identify linguistic strengths and weaknesses and determine future language needs.
  • Maintain a strategic focus on foreign languages during the recruitment process. Hire employees with multilingual and cross-cultural competencies. Seek partnership with colleges that have international studies, foreign language, and study abroad programs. These can be a source for qualified graduates with the linguistic competencies your company needs.
  • Offer and encourage in-house training for existing employees who lack the required levels of language proficiency. Immersive language training could focus on a specific trade.

In the end, a proactive program focused on eliminating language barriers can translate into a safer, more productive work environment that is welcoming to workers of all cultures.