Work Ethic, Not Latinos, Is Job Barrier

Anthony Best and Malcolm Jordan own a plumbing and heating company.
Anthony Best and Malcolm Jordan own a plumbing and heating company. "I knew . . . that becoming a plumber wasn't going to be easy," Best said. (By Courtland Milloy -- The Washington Post)
By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, April 12, 2006

A young black man gets a job as a laborer on a construction site in downtown Washington. He is not mentally or physically prepared for the hard, dirty work ahead. Nor does he have a clue about the rewards of perseverance. So he wakes up the next morning, aching and demoralized. He shows up late for work and eventually stops showing up altogether.

Meanwhile, a vanload of Latinos pulls up to a job site. Only one speaks English and serves as a translator. They work as a team with near reckless abandon, hardly stopping for lunch. Before long, they are earning overtime pay.

I have seen these circumstances unfold and know construction site supervisors who have made similar observations. So I am skeptical of claims that "Latinos are taking jobs away from African Americans," which is a complaint that has resurfaced during the recent debate over restricting immigration.

Of course, there are African American successes in the construction trades. But there are troubling exceptions. For lack of even a rudimentary education and, more fundamentally, the absence of family and community support, far too many young black men are unable to compete for jobs.

If the same effort to stop illegal immigrants were being used to end, say, illiteracy, then more people might be able to understand that ignorance is the greatest threat to our national security. Stop the disproportionately high dropout rates among black high school students, and the odds of getting a job instead of going to jail improve.

"When we visit the homes of our employees, we find that Latino workers have much more family support, more intact families, than African Americans workers," said Myles Gladstone, vice president for human resources at Miller & Long Concrete Construction, the largest concrete contractor in the country. "When it comes to African American workers, retention is a huge problem, and part of the reason is a lack of support."

For the black guys I know who made it, family support helped them cope with work-related stress as well as the disdain for blue-collar work in their neighborhoods.

"The guys used to laugh at me when I came home from work all dirty," said Malcolm Jordan, 37, a master plumber and graduate of McKinley High in the District. "They had the cars, the clothes, the girls. Now, 20 years later, their fast money is gone, and many of them are, too. But I own a home. I have a car. If the guys today could see how I live, they'd have a totally different view of what it means to come home with dirty clothes on."

Last year, Jordan started a company, A.H. Jordan Plumbing, Heating and Mechanical, with his longtime friend Anthony Best, 39, also a master plumber and graduate of Coolidge High in the District.

"I knew from the start that becoming a plumber wasn't going to be easy," Best said. "There's a view that plumbing is a 'white man's trade,' and, sure enough, some people did try to make us quit. The black guys who began quitting early on in life ended up quitting every time. But those of us who were taught how to keep our eyes on the prize went on to become successful."

James A. Thrower, 35, a graduate of Banneker High in the District, served as an apprentice with Local 26 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. He became the first African American to graduate as valedictorian from that program and now teaches electrical work to apprentices.

"If some of these guys could just learn to read, write and do basic math, and if they didn't mind getting their hands banged up every now and then, we'd pay them to go to school, give them a job and have them making a minimum of $65,000 in five years," Thrower said. "But, and it pains me to say this, some of them really don't want to work that hard."

But that's what it takes, along with commitment, sacrifice and perseverance -- the very qualities that the only group of people to arrive on these shores as slaves relied on for survival and success.

Focus on that, not Latinos, and we may well end up like Jordan and Best: creating jobs, not just looking for them.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company