Steamboat Springs If you want to gain insights into the local Hispanic/Latino population, you need to learn to "listen with your heart," Eli Vega told an audience at the Sheraton Steamboat Resort Friday.
"That's a very powerful statement," Vega said. "It's also a very simplistic way of saying that we need to learn about emotional intelligence."
Vega, who is a native of Mexico, works at the Steamboat Springs office of the Colorado Workforce Center. He was a member of a panel discussing ethnic diversity in the Routt County workplace during a quarterly "business to business" forum sponsored by the Steamboat Springs Economic Development Council.
Learning to be a good listener was the thrust of a recent diversity sensitivity program attended by Routt County community leaders. They were participating in the American Leadership forum sponsored by Colorado Mountain College. Dianna Sutton, Cyndy Simms, Towny Anderson, Rob Dick, Mike Roberts, Walt Daub and Nancy Stahoviak all took part.
Vega, who holds degrees from Texas Tech and the University of Utah, said there are more similarities than dissimilarities among people of diverse cultural backgrounds. But the differences are sometimes significant. Hispanics often encounter the world on an emotional level. It was a trait he said he gradually lost during seven years of university-level education and then rediscovered later in his career.
"It was good to feel that way again," he told his audience.
Vega noted that although Routt and Moffat counties experienced dramatic percentage growth in their Hispanic/Latino populations during the decade from 1990 to 2000, that growth pales in comparison to what has been experienced in other Colorado ski counties.
Hispanics made up 3.2 percent of the population in Routt County as of 2000, an increase of 80 percent over 1990. And in Moffat County, 79-percent growth brought the Hispanic population to 9.5 percent of the total.
By contrast, a 232-percent increase in Eagle County brought the Hispanic minority up to 23 percent of the total. Pitkin County experienced a 105 percent increase in its Hispanic population during the '90s, but neighboring Garfield County saw an increase of 336 percent.
The result was that the elementary school in Carbondale went from just a handful of "English as a second language" students to fully 50 percent of its student body enrolling in ESL classes.
Friday panel member Paul Fisher is a member of the Steamboat Springs School Board.
Of the 1,900 students in the local school district, 30 are ESL students, he said. Of the 30, 25 are Spanish speakers. There are also two students of Burmese heritage, two Italians and one Russian student.
"The smallness of our ESL population actually creates enormous challenges because we don't have the critical mass needed to be fiscally efficient," Fisher said.
The Steamboat Springs School District's approach to working with ESL students has been to hire tutors to work with the students inside and outside the regular classroom. The ESL students who are not Spanish speakers pose a greater challenge than the Hispanic students, Fisher said. The district has hired the students' own family members to serve as their tutors.
Although Fisher believes his district has done remarkably well in meeting the needs of the students, he thinks it can do more to embrace the opportunities diversity affords the district.
Rick Fuller, of the general contracting firm TCD, said his company depends heavily on immigrant construction workers for the jobs it bids in Routt and neighboring counties. However, a high percentage of those workers are directly employed by subcontractors who are working on the construction sites and hire their own employees.
"In the high season, our workforce can be as high as 150," Fuller said. "But we're a management company." Through subcontractors "we'll touch in the thousands range as far as people working for us. We're an end-user of resources and we need people."
One of the challenges in the construction field is controlling costs, and whether you call it low-cost labor or high-productivity labor, immigrant workers who will take on everything from skilled trades to menial tasks for modest pay, are critical.
The language barrier is a challenge for TCD , Fuller said.
"Our biggest problem right now is language," he said. "Without being able to communicate, we can't train them. It leads to safety issues and re-work."
Fuller said TCD prides itself on supporting the communities where it works. Company managers are sometimes troubled by the fact that a portion of wages paid to immigrant workers doesn't turn over in the local economy, but is sent directly out of the community to support relatives elsewhere.
However, Fuller said the Hispanic/Latino workers on his company's jobs are among the most industrious and conscientious he has ever encountered. If there's a problem with the work, it's almost always traceable to a communication breakdown.
There are other some other cultural differences that befuddle TCD foremen.
They aren't accustomed to seeing their crews break for lunch and prepare a communal meal in a cooking pot, right at the job site. It actually leads to some sanitation issues he said. Just the same, he gets a good feeling from watching an extended family get together to share a noonday meal.
"It's a really good, positive thing to see on the job site," he said.
Then there's the tendency of some of his immigrant workers to arrive on the job in the morning eight or 10 to a single car.
"If the driver doesn't make it in to work one morning, now I have 10 guys who don't make it to work!" Fuller said.
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