More Young People Enter Apprenticeships 

YOUNGSTOWN – Despite the lack of so-called “mega” projects in the region such as the now finished Ultium Cells LLC plant in Lordstown, building trades in the region are experiencing a steady year that has cleared most union halls for the upcoming summer, labor representatives say.

More encouraging, however, is the rising number of young people expressing interest in joining the trades through apprenticeship programs. The programs provide a pipeline of new talent as a slate of veteran and experienced practitioners retire.

“We’ve seen a really strong uptick from high school kids,” says Tony DiTommaso, financial secretary for Local 171 of the Carpenters & Joiners union and senior representative for the central midwest Regional Council of Carpenters. “These are young, talented people wanting to get started.”

For years, DiTommaso says, the average age of an apprentice was about 27. “A lot of them went to college, earned a degree and found out they couldn’t find a job in their field,” he says.  “Now, they need to make a career choice.” Often, the building trades proved a valuable alternative.

Over the last few years, however, the trend is shifting toward a younger demographic, especially as it relates to the Carpenters union, DiTommaso says. He attributes this to a more aggressive push by the building trades to inform both students and their parents about good-paying, sustainable careers with the various crafts.  

The All Trades Expo, held in September at the Canfield Fairgrounds, is among the more high-profile events that give these careers exposure, DiTommaso says. Last year, some 5,200 students attended the expo. “It shows we are out in the schools talking to the students and our programs are taking hold,” he says. “It also shows that parents are starting to see value.”

There are 1,200 apprentices enrolled at the Carpenters regional training center in Richfield, 125 more than the previous year, DiTommaso says. About 90 apprentice carpenters are associated with Local 171 while dozens more are apprenticing as millwrights and floor layers. Also, the number of females entering the Carpenters increased 12% compared to last year, while minority participation is up 20% versus 2023, he says.

“As baby boomers leave, we’ve been hammering for replacements,” DiTommaso says. “Now, we’ve got a pretty good pool of talented young people.”

Marty Loney, president of the Western Reserve Building Trades and business manager for Local 396 of the Plumbers and Pipefitters union, says his apprenticeship program recently accepted 17 students from 125 applicants: “That’s a good solid number. We know the expo is really starting to take hold.”

Last year, Local 396 accepted 24 applicants and all but three were under the age of 25, he says. “This year, we have quite a few just out of high school,” he says. “I think they’re just starting to see there are other options out there. It’s been a really good thing for us.”

Work among signatory contractors remains brisk, Loney says, and should other projects move forward as planned, the trades should be even more active by the end of this year.

“They’re going to have 50 or 60 bidders out for the new power plant in Lordstown in about a month,” he says. 

Other projects once thought of as long shots have since gained traction, Loney says. First among these is the Barlett Maritime Corp. development, which calls for the construction of a U.S. Navy repair pier in Lorain, along with a one million square-foot parts and equipment reconditioning complex in Lordstown.  “It’s looking good,” he says. “It’s not dead.”

The Carpenters’ DiTommaso says a selection of smaller projects across the Mahoning Valley has kept the trades hopping. “There’s the Aldi project in Poland, the Meijer in Austintown, Farmers Bank in Canfield,” he says. “There are a ton of smaller projects that add up.”

Loney anticipates some work is likely to slow as autumn approaches but then pick up again. “It’s been pretty steady,” he says. “But in an election year, it’s always up and down.”

Other trades have noticed an overall slowdown but remain busy because of the influx of funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. 

“A lot of these sewer and waterline upgrades, bridges, roadwork – you wouldn’t see any of this happening if it wasn’t for infrastructure money,” says Brian Wydick, business representative for Operating Engineers Local 66 District 2. The district covers Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties in Ohio and Mercer and Lawrence counties in western Pennsylvania.

Operating Engineers are also finding work in other parts of the state as booming development projects such as the Intel chip manufacturing campus and the new Honda plant near Columbus consume tradesmen and contractors. Moreover, another 58 operators are working on Ultium electric-vehicle battery plants in Tennessee and Michigan. 

Another project on the horizon is a large compressor station Williams Companies’ intends to construct in Columbiana County to accelerate delivery of natural gas across the Utica/Point Pleasant shale basin. “We’re looking at that project to start by the end of June or early July,” he says.

At the moment, District 2 is nearly at capacity.  “For honestly not having major industrial jobs other than the power plant, we’re teetering right at full manpower,” he says. “I think that’s a tribute to private entities using our signatories and the infrastructure money.”

Pictured at top: A new Meijer store under construction in Austintown is one of the midsize construction projects underway in the Valley.