Once upon a time, workers in the construction industry were looked upon as respected members of society. We seem to have come a long way since then. In 1975, I was tending hod for an old journeyman plasterer. He, too old to be productive on the plaster pump crews, made an excellent patch. I was not a plasterer but was sent out to mix plaster and help him out the best I could.
He was from Mexico and came to the United States when he was young. He had served in World War II to earn his citizenship. He was from a family of some prominence and had an elegant way about himself. He was a tidy man, with a prim and proper attitude. I not only liked him but I found myself enchanted by his royal yet unpretentious demeanor.
I will never forget him telling me what it was like when he first came to the United States. “Oh Marquitos,” (that’s what he called me). “I can remember when I was young. We plasterers had to wear black bow-ties with our whites to work.” He recalled how other trades held the lathers and plasterers in high regard. He noted and was visibly concerned with how much had changed over the last four decades. That was four decades ago and things have only gotten worse for the lather and plasterer.
My old mentor friend continued with his experience of getting a loan for his home. “I remember when my young wife and I went to get our first home loan. I was so nervous and my English was also not so good, Marquitos. The loan officer noticed on the application I was a plasterer. He looked up and said, “This loan would be no problem for you, Mr. Montoya.” My friend seemed sad to think of the yester-years and changes in the industry. I miss my old mentor but ultimately I am glad he is not here to see what levels society has dropped the construction worker to. It often seems working in a box store has more prestige.
What to Do?
I cannot change the world. But I can work to provide a little dignity for the construction worker for whom respect is long overdue. The job of a latherer and plasterer is hard, with physical requirements that many cannot meet. The work also requires knowledge of application and installation in order to do it right. Skill enhancement increases production and allows the contractors to make a profit while simultaneously adding value to employees. All this is a benefit to building owners and society.
A paycheck is not unique or special. But it does fail to acknowledge any earned skills or knowledge. The worker could just as well be flipping burgers. When I was an apprentice and completed the program, I will never forget the day my journeyman card came in the mail. A few years later, I felt the same when I passed the tests to receive my state contractor's license. That feeling went beyond a sense of accomplishment; it instilled a sense of pride and self-respect. I think about the lathers and plasterers out there on our jobs today who receive a paycheck—but nothing more. No appreciation for their part of the job or what they had to go through to get the plaster just right. Our work seems to lack a sense of dignity.
As the director for the Stucco Manufacturers Association and an old-time plasterer who witnessed the last remaining respect die out for our craft, I wanted to do something. The SMA supported my vision. Together, we formulated a training program that is national, online, available in English or Spanish and free. Testing was added for workers who wanted a picture ID card saying what they accomplished. It is similar to a contractor's card to verify training. Passing is not a given. You must work hard to pass, with a passing rate of about 50 percent.
What We Found
Our initial feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Most are pleasantly surprised that the training videos are professionals actually on a jobsite, not actors in a studio pretending. The second—and more self-satisfying response—is the pride they express when they get that card. The SMA office staff says the most frequent comment heard is, “Thank you for the dignity and respect you have shown me.” I smile a little every time I hear this. We are told the course and card means more to them than we could know. That is where they are mistaken; we do know.
These reactions aren’t just a result we didn’t think about. We aimed for it. We wanted the lathers and plasterers to feel a sense of dignity, self-respect. They deserve it. All skilled craft workers should earn that small symbol of respect and accomplishment. A little dignity for construction workers was long overdue.