When 54 year old Hoffman Construction laborer foreman Bobby Lewis thinks about advice for young people of color entering the construction trades, he thinks of fortitude, enthusiasm. “You’ve got to want to be here,” he says on the day we interview him. “I think I’ve told a number of people that.”
It’s clear from watching the good-natured, easygoing Lewis go about his own duties that he enjoys his work. On the Intel building site that Hoffman is developing in Beaverton, he oversees a crew of six who are in charge of taking care of their coworkers’ well being – stocking first aid stations, making sure that there’s ample water supply for workers laboring under the hot summer sun. “Laborers are the backbone of this whole operation,” he smiles.
But having begun his career in the construction trades almost two decades ago, Lewis knows it’s not always that easy for men of color to get a hold in the industry. “When I got started, it was tough for a black male. You have to work harder than anyone else. You had to be sure of what you’re doing.” Nowadays, he’d like to see more minorities on building sites. “I don’t know why I don’t,” he reflects.
Lewis worked his first building construction job at age 35 at the US Federal Courthouse in Portland. Before that, the Portland-raised University of Washington wide receiver, who dropped out when he hurt his back and his girlfriend got pregnant, had a variety of gigs. He worked at the rail yard (like his dad before him), as a loan officer (“That’s a hard job to do, because what you’re doing to people isn’t fair”), and as a Laborer at the shipyards.
At each step of the way, he says he felt a little nervous – but dove right into expanding his skill set. On the shipyards, “I was a little nervous, a little scared, not knowing what to expect.” That first day at the US Federal Courthouse, he was stumped when foreman Mike Delgado (who is still Lewis’ supervisor and mentor) asked him what a MSDS was. “I didn’t know!” Lewis says in mock horror remembering that day. For aspiring Laborers, psst – the acronym stands for Material Safety Data Sheet.
The steep learning curve of the trades, Lewis says, is more than worth navigating. “I’ve been able to support my family.” He takes trips to the coast with granddaughter Natalia in the family’s own trailer, one of the many items he’s been able to buy on his union paycheck.
His friendly, capable manner has also meant he’s been able to get promotions that showcase his leadership skills. Though he was initially reluctant to become a foreman, now he enjoys the position. “I like delegating. I like seeing ahead to what needs to be done, staying a step ahead of everything.”
“A good leader is someone who can listen to their crew,” he tells us. “Someone who can take suggestions. Not try to intimidate, dominate situations.” Clearly, his years on field taught him some things about teamwork.
And so, despite challenges, Lewis recommends the trades to anyone who has considered their options and thinks they’re up to the job. He will often say as much to young people he meets out in the world, such as stopping to advise the security guards he passes at work on his way to clock in. “Work hard,” he advises. “Be caring. Listen. Get to work on time. Be sure of yourself.”