YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The work has been nonstop the last several years for much of the building trades.
While megaprojects such as Ultium’s $2.3 billion battery-cell manufacturing plant and the Lordstown Energy Center have kept the building trades busy over the past five years, much of this work is either finished or winding down.
No matter. The Mahoning Valley still teems with projects that are likely to keep the union halls cleaned out this building season.
“All of the crafts are busy,” says Martin Loney, president of the Western Reserve Building Trades Council and business agent for Plumbers & Pipefitters Local 396.
“Operators are picking up roadwork, ironworkers and plumbers and pipefitters are busy,” he says. “Not all of the trades are 100% activated, but we’re holding our own in the Mahoning Valley.”
The Western Reserve Building Trades’ membership includes 24 locals representing 18 different crafts that are active in northeastern Ohio.
The health care sector is especially busy this season, Loney says. Work continues on Salem Regional Medical Center’s 76,600-square-foot surgery and outpatient pavilion at Firestone Farms in Columbiana, while the trades are also engaged with the construction of a medical office building for Youngstown Orthopaedic Associates on Crossroads Drive in Boardman.
The energy sector continues to build in the Mahoning Valley, Loney says, as site work is underway for a second combined-cycle energy plant in Lordstown. Construction of the $1.2 billion Trumbull Energy Center is expected to take three years and create 1,000 construction jobs.
“It should get started fairly soon,” Loney says. “They’re now at the site getting the underground utilities done.”
There’s also the prospect of other mega projects across Ohio that could pull some resources from the local trades, particularly Intel’s planned $20 billion silicon chip campus near Columbus. A project of this magnitude would need to compete for construction labor from across the state, he says.
“That’s 10 years’ worth of work,” Loney says. “I think we’re going to have some down there – we’ll be on the outside edge of that.”
Much of the work related to the Intel plant would most likely come from suppliers or ancillary businesses to the campus that are within 100 miles of the Mahoning Valley, Loney says, since most tradesmen prefer to stay with local jobs.
Loney says there’s still work underway at the Ultium plant but expects more projects will come online once money is appropriated from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed last year.
“The infrastructure money hasn’t come in yet,” he says. “I expect a little lull in the fall, then take off in the beginning of next year.”
Moreover, Loney is hopeful other local projects could be announced soon and come to fruition.
Scott Satterlee, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 64 in Boardman, says work remains “pretty steady” on regional projects.
“There are no huge projects going on right now,” he says. “But we capture a lot of the commercial market.”
The demolition project underway at 20 Federal Place in downtown Youngstown, a $5 million Coates Care Care car wash under construction in Boardman along South Avenue, the Salem hospital building in Columbiana, and the new TownePlace Suites and Springhill Suites at Westford Lifestyle Community in Canfield are some of the larger projects keeping IBEW Local 64 busy, he says.
“We also did the interior for the Steelite project,” in downtown Youngstown, Satterlee says.
Steelite is renovating space in the Taft Technology Center on West Federal Street and anticipates bringing more than 100 jobs to the central business district.
Signatory contractors have also won important roadwork and infrastructure bids this season, which bodes well for Operating Engineers Local 66, says Brian Wydick, field agent, whose territory covers Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties.
“We’re nearing peak employment. We’re almost empty,” Wydick says. “As the bigger projects come in, it’ll empty out.”
A major road-resurfacing contract in Mahoning County was awarded to Lindy Paving, which uses operating engineers from Local 66. Meanwhile, union members are at the Trumbull Energy Center assisting with excavation and site preparation work, while another 12 operators are still working at the Ultium plant, he says.
“We’re busy as all get-out,” declares Tony DiTommaso, financial secretary for United Brotherhood of Carpenters Local 171 and secretary-treasurer at the Building Trades Council. “It seems that as one job is finishing up, another is starting.”
DiTommaso says his trade has come a long way from lumber, hammers and nails. Today, the craft employs lasers for precision measuring, the use of different materials, different tools, and has adapted for work in places that are heavily regulated such as medical facilities, he says.
Because replacing and installing walls, floors, ceilings and other structural components in a hospital, for example, could release potentially infectious agents, carpenters at Local 171 undergo Infection Control Risk Assessment, or ICRA, training. This certification provides assurances to medical facilities that contractors and workers are properly trained to handle these issues.
“When you work in clean-room environments, you have to make sure you’re not contaminating others or yourself,” DiTommaso says. “There’s a wide array of things we do that most wouldn’t think for a carpenter.”
DiTommaso says Local 171 is aggressively working to increase its membership, recruiting carpenters and building its apprentice program. Between looming retirements of experienced carpenters and those apprentices in the pipeline, membership in the local is basically flat, he says.
“We’re now taking apprentices year-round,” he says.
Workforce Shortage Tops 500,000
The construction industry will need to attract an estimated 546,000 additional workers on top of the normal pace of hiring to meet the demand for labor, according to a proprietary model developed by Associated Builders and Contractors.
““As the demand for construction services remains high, filling these roles with skilled craft professionals is vital to America’s economy and infrastructure rebuilding initiatives,” says Michael Bellaman, CEO of the industry association.
The proprietary model uses the historical relationship between inflation-adjusted construction spending growth as well as payroll construction employment to convert anticipated increases in construction outlays into demand for construction labor. This equates to a rate of approximately 3,620 new jobs per billion dollars of additional construction spending.
This increased demand is added to the current level of above-average job openings. Projected retirements, shifts to other industries and other forms of anticipated separation are also embodied within computations.
The construction industry averaged more than 390,000 job openings per month in 2022, the highest level on record, and the industry unemployment rate of 4.6% in 2022 was the second lowest on record.
“Despite sharp increases in interest rates over the past year, the shortage of construction workers will not disappear in the near future,” says ABC chief economist Anirban Basu.
“First, while single-family home building activity has moderated, many contractors continue to experience substantial demand from mega-projects associated with chip manufacturing plants, clean energy facilities and infrastructure. Second, too few younger workers are entering the skilled trades, meaning this is not only a construction labor shortage but also a skills shortage,” Basu says.
“With nearly one in four construction worker older than 55, retirements will continue to whittle away at the construction workforce,” he says.
Meanwhile, the number of skilled workers has grown at a much slower pace or, in the case of certain occupations such as carpenter, declined.