Economic Development

Work Empties Building Trades’ Union Halls

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YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Were you to walk into nearly any of the union halls in the Mahoning Valley in search of bricklayers, ironworkers, millwrights or laborers, you’d be hard-pressed to find one.

“Almost every hall is empty,” says Rocky DiGennaro, president of the Western Reserve Construction and Building Trades Council. “Building work is really good and most of the crafts are at maximum capacity.”

DiGennaro’s observation is evident throughout the region. On the east side of Youngstown, operating engineers are busy maneuvering equipment and preparing the site where Joseph Co. International intends to put up a $20 million manufacturing complex and research campus to produce self-chilling cans.

In Lordstown, work continues on Clean Energy Future’s $900 million electrical generation plant with the anticipation of starting another like it nearby. And, ongoing highway infrastructure work along interstates 80 and 76 is keeping local tradesmen exceedingly busy as the summer approaches.

Add to these high-profile projects a laundry list of new construction at Youngstown State University, new assisted living and nursing home complexes, new school construction, and some pipeline work, and the building trades are looking at a nonstop summer.

“It’s so busy that some jobs have had to get contractors from out-of-town because there’s no one available,” DiGennaro says.

In downtown Youngstown, for example, DiGennaro points to the handful of projects underway. “Everything you see, it’s good,” he says. “We’ve got four masonry contractors working there.”

DiGennaro, also the business agent for Laborers International Local 125, relates that about half of his local’s 413 members are engaged in highway work, while 100 or so are working on pipeline projects in Mahoning County and southern Ohio.

“There’s a gas pipeline in Austintown we’re building that runs to the energy plant in Lordstown,” DiGennaro says. Roughly 25 laborers are on that job while the others are working in counties further south on the Rover Pipeline – a 711-mile natural gas liquids transportation line that begins in southeastern Ohio and angles northwest into Michigan. Part of that pipeline moves through Jefferson, Carroll and Stark counties, and demand for pipeline workers is so strong that Local 125 had to field its members to fill the manpower shortages in these areas.

“We’re hearing that a lot of laborers and operators are jumping from company to company,” DiGennaro says. “Companies are trying to lure them away and they’re offering top dollar.”

Helping the trades this year was a mild winter that allowed many contractors to get ahead on some of their projects.

“We got off to a good start in February, which is unheard of,” says Brian Collier, field representative for Local 8 of the Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers union. Lencyk Masonry, Boardman, is contracted for the brick work at the University Edge apartments at YSU, while K.C. Craft of Pittsburgh hired local tradesmen to do the extensive brickwork on the new Barnes & Noble University bookstore under construction at YSU. “There are also two different crews doing restoration work on campus,” he says.

Bricklayers were also busy this season with Girard-based Windsor House Inc.’s $12 million nursing home, Windsor House at Canfield, Collier says. Among the other projects under construction in which the bricklayers are involved, are two schools in Lake-view and Champion, and the Commons at Madison Avenue – a 40-unit affordable housing complex on the north side of Youngstown.

Meanwhile, the 20 or so tile setters who work out of Local 8 are busy with restoration work at the City Hall Annex and International Towers projects in downtown Youngstown.

“Masonry is still very popular,” Collier says. “We just put on five new apprentices and are looking to put on a few more. Our hall is empty, and I have apprentices looking to get out to work.”

Still, not all of the trades received the big bump others enjoyed during the first quarter.

“We did have a slower than normal winter, but things look a lot better,” observes Jim Burgham, business manager at Local 64 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. As the season progresses, electrical workers are busy with projects at YSU, the Nordson Xaloy’s plant consolidation project on Victoria Road in Austintown and some work at Northside Hospital, now under the ownership of Boston-based Steward Health Care.

Burgham says that most of the other crafts were busier earlier this year because of the nature of projects in the region. The roadwork and oil and gas pipeline work, for example, didn’t require electrical workers. Now, that appears to be turning around.

Production at pipe manufacturer V&M Star in Youngstown has increased since oil and gas activity has somewhat rebounded across the country and has helped contractors secure more work at the company’s tube mill, Burgham says. “We’re doing more maintenance at that facility,” he says. And Local 64 electricians are busy at work with an expansion at PHD Manufacturing in Columbiana, he reports.

“There are quite a few new projects being bid right now,” Burgham says. “We’re anticipating a lot of work this summer. The ‘chill-can’ plant project looks good,” he says. In the near term, there should be work for electrical contractors at a new bus garage and fire station in Boardman, he notes, and another fire station in Canfield.

“The remainder of the year looks promising,” Burgham says.

Nevertheless, the number of man-hours logged so far this year in the Valley’s commercial construction market is still short of pre-Great Recession levels, says Kevin Reilly, executive vice president of the Builders Association of Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania. “We’re struggling to get back to the levels we were at before 2008,” he says. “But, we’re getting better.”

This year, Reilly estimates local contractors will record about three million man-hours of construction work, on track to match last year’s levels.

In 2007, those numbers hit 3.5 million hours only to sink to 2.8 million hours during the worst of the recession in 2008-2009. “We’ve come back up, but we’re just kind of holding there,” he says.

The Builders Association tracks only those hours worked in Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties in Ohio, and Lawrence and Mercer counties in western Pennsylvania, Reilly clarifies. Larger jobs such as pipeline projects that are out of The Builders’ jurisdiction but use local contractors or workers, for example, wouldn’t be included in that number.

“We don’t see those man-hours since they’re out of our area,” Reilly says. “But we’re feeling the impact.”

Indeed, large-scale projects such as Royal Dutch Shell’s $6 billion ethane cracker plant in Beaver County, Pa., could draw a significant number of tradesmen from the Mahoning Valley. One local electrical contractor, VEC, has already performed work during the preconstruction phase at that site. At its peak, the Shell project could employ as many as 6,000 construction workers.

This project, coupled with ongoing work at the $900 million Lordstown Energy Center and the prospects for another $900 million energy generation plant at the Lordstown site – although great for the Mahoning Valley’s workforce – also present cause for concern, Reilly says.

“What I worry about are manpower shortages,” he says. Demand for tradesmen to cover these large-scale projects could exceed the number of workers available in several years because fewer and fewer young people are entering the construction trades.

“We don’t seem to get the number of applicants we used to get 10 or 15 years ago,” he says. “I’ve heard contractors say they’re unable to expand their business because they don’t have the manpower to manage their projects.”

The key is to persuade younger people to give serious consideration to a career in the construction trades. Such work pays great wages and offers good benefits, Reilly says.

“We need to get across to people about the great job opportunities that are available in the construction industry,” he says.

Pictured: On the east side of Youngstown, tradesmen are busy preparing the site for the Joseph Co. International’s $20 million “chill-can” plant.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.