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Target is workplace deaths: Building bilingual communication

Wen-Whai Li, chairman of the department of civil engineering at UTEP, stands with Gilbert M. Silvam
Wen-Whai Li, chairman of the department of civil
engineering at UTEP, stands with Gilbert M. Silva,
construction inspector for the University of Texas System,
as they look over plans next to the new Foster-Stevens Basketball
Training Center. In January, UTEP will begin
its Certificate in Construction Management program.
(Ruben R. Ramirez / El Paso Times)
Construction firms will soon have another tool in their belt at the University of Texas at El Paso designed to help managers communicate with Spanish-speaking construction workers and to cut down on workplace fatalities that officials believe may stem from language barriers.

UTEP this spring will begin its Certificate in Construction Management program, a five-course, 15-credit course of study aimed at preparing construction managers to communicate technical construction material in both Spanish and English and to prepare managers to work effectively with a growing population of Hispanic tradesmen.

Oscar Venegas, owner of Venegas Engineering Management and Construction and a member of the Alumni Academy of Civil Engineers, described the need among construction firms to be able to communicate with workers who have a better knowledge of Spanish than English.

Language especially becomes a barrier when dealing with complex technical information, such as diagrams and schematics workers need to understand in order for jobs to be completed correctly and safely, he said.

"The communication skills of the students are demanded more than they used to be," Venegas said. "Really, whether the worker is Hispanic or any nationality, it's the ability to convert technical drawings into a language that can be understood at the site."

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of on-the-job fatalities among Hispanic construction workers in the United States increased from 264 in 2003 to 360 in 2006 - a 36-percent jump.

Development of the program began in 2004 when people in the construction industry requested that UTEP establish a certificate program in construction management to respond to a high demand for construction managers with technical and bilingual expertise.

UTEP officials believe a greater knowledge of Spanish, as well as coursework to augment the educational experience of construction managers, will cut down on workplace deaths among Hispanic construction workers.

The Texas Workforce Commission projects about 33,500 construction manager positions throughout the state by 2012. Hispanics comprise nearly 25 percent of the construction work force nationwide, though in El Paso it's much higher.

Wen-Whai Li, chairman of the department of civil engineering at UTEP, with officials in the construction industry in El Paso, believe improved Spanish-language skills among managers and better education among the technical aspects of construction will help curb workplace fatalities.

The program could also establish a foundation for creating a master's program in construction management and engineering at the university.

"We want to produce through this certificate an advanced degree," Li said. "The reason for this program is not just to meet the needs of the region, but also there's a national need for Spanish speaking construction managers."

A first class of about 15 students is set to begin the program in January. It is designed for students preparing for a career in construction management or who are in mid-career already. Students will study construction management, communication in English-Spanish for construction managers and complete an internship. Students must have an undergraduate degree to enroll.

Li said the certificate program is a solution to communication barriers that have emerged with the large number of Hispanic construction workers in the United States and the complex technical information they must understand, sometimes with limited English proficiency.

"There's a huge need for quality construction managers for the construction business in El Paso, as well as in the Southwest. We still foresee a constant growth in the construction business," Li said.

Darren Meritz may be reached at

– Darren Meritz

El Paso Times. Citing Internet Resources. [Online], October 18, 2008.