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Building Trades Unions Expect Little Idle Time

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – There’s no shortage of high-profile construction projects underway in the region.

Major highway arteries are dotted with bright orange cones as contractors are busy resurfacing roads and bridges. Workers swarm the site in Lordstown where a $900 million electrical plant is under construction, while a similar venture is just getting started in Lawrence County, Pennsylvania. In Monaca, Pennsylvania, more than 1,000 tradesmen are on site as the building phase of the $6 billion ethane cracker plant of Royal Dutch Shell enters its second year.

These projects alone would be enough to keep just about all of the local building trades active for the next several years. But add to this slate the expansions of major industrial employers, public improvement projects, private retailers and a smattering of smaller jobs, and this construction season is shaping up like no other in recent memory.

“It’s going to be a good year,” forecasts Rocky DiGennaro, president of the Western Reserve Construction and Building Trades Council. “Everybody in the trades is busy – my hall is empty.”

DiGennaro, who also serves as the business agent for Laborers Local 125, says highway projects that started in earnest last season continue in full force this year as well. “We’re finding it hard to man all of our work,” he says.

Bridge reconstruction, road resurfacing and some pipeline work are keeping the Laborers active this summer, DiGennaro says. So are projects related to private industrial ventures that engage workers representing just about all of the crafts in the building trades.

DiGennaro says that major projects such as the new, $10 million amphitheater underway in Youngstown, the $20 million Chill-Can project, and a substantial expansion at PurFood’s plant in North Jackson represent how work is cutting across all sectors.

“Things are starting to loosen up,” he says. Structural steel work is in progress in New Castle where a 110,000-square-foot building is under construction for Ellwood Quality Steel of the Ellwood Group, reports Tony Deley, business manager for Ironworkers Local 207. The local covers five counties in eastern Ohio and five in western Pennsylvania.

The Ellwood project will house the new annealing operations of the company, Deley says. Initially, about 20 tradesmen were on site, but that number has grown exponentially since steel erection began.

This job, plus the $900 million Hickory Run power station in development in Lawrence County, is likely to take up the bulk of the Ironworkers’ time this year.

“The New Castle area will command most of our work,” Deley says.

Meanwhile, the local awaits word on two pending projects – a second $900 million combined cycle electrical generation plant in Lordstown – the Trumbull Energy Center, next to the nearly finished Lordstown Energy Center, and the $1.1 billion South Field Energy Center proposed to be built near Wellsville in Columbiana County.

While most of the electrical power projects use local union labor for their work, they offer little opportunity for local contractors to participate since much of this is coordinated through a single contractor that the developers select.

“All of our contractors are doing well,” Deley says, noting that there appears to be plenty of other work to offset the loss of the power plant projects. “They do sub a little bit, but it’s a big plus when they hire us.”

The large volume of work for the building trades, however, presents a challenge for the local unions in that they have to ensure manpower is sufficient to staff all of the projects slated for the summer, Deley says. To help remedy this, Local 207 is in the process of hiring probationary members – that is, prospective Ironworkers who have some type of construction background but aren’t yet enrolled in an apprentice or training program.

“We need to get people hired on because of the boom we expect this summer,” he says. “We have three signed up so far, and we expect that to grow to between 10 and 20 pretty soon.” Should they stay in the trades, training for these probationary workers would begin during the fall when the apprenticeship programs resume. At present, there are some 300 ironworkers under Local 207.

“We’re always taking steps to increase our membership,” Deley says.

For other locals, the heavy wave of construction activity hasn’t hit yet, but there’s little doubt that it’s coming.

“We have about 40 people out of work right now,” says Tim Callion, business agent for plumbers and pipe fitters Local 396. Work at the Lordstown Energy Center is close to wrapping up, Callion says, but the local still has tradesmen at the site. “It will be picking up around the summer. By mid-summer our people will definitely have a lot of opportunities.”

Callion says that members of Local 396 are busy with projects that started last year, such as the Enclave dormitory on the campus of Youngstown State University. There are also projects underway at Lakeview School District and some work at Vallourec in Youngstown.

And, there is the prospect for securing work with the steel industry in Cleveland because mills there are beginning to retool with upgrades, Callion says. “Anything that happens, we’ll have the opportunity to jump on a job,” he says.

Meanwhile, members of Local 396 are taking the opportunity to attend classes geared toward updating their OSHA credentials – standards that more project owners require, especially in the power generation industry.

“We’ll also be increasing our welding programs throughout the summer, along with rigging, signaling and OSHA,” Callion says.

Much of this is in preparation for the proposed second plant at Lords-town, Callion says, and he wants to ensure his membership acquires the necessary certifications to work at those sites. “Owners are starting to implement that you need these credentials,” he says.

For a larger regional perspective, the most prolific project in terms of the number of jobs and investment is the Royal Dutch Shell ethane cracker plant under construction near Monaca, Pennsylvania, just south of Lawrence County, says Thomas Durkin, president of Operating Engineers Local 66. The local is based in Pittsburgh and covers Mahoning, Trumbull and Mahoning counties in Ohio, and 33 counties in western and central Pennsylvania. It staffs its District 2 office in Boardman.

“This is the best forecast we’ve had in six years,” Durkin says. “We’re extremely happy about the work that’s available for our membership.”

Operating engineers are responsible for the heavy lifting during a large construction project, Durkin says. These skilled tradesmen drive the heavy earth-moving equipment, tower cranes, and front-loaders – all of the machines that are used to prepare a site and further construction on major projects across the region.

Presently, some 200 operating engineers – some from the Youngstown district – are on site at the Shell cracker plant project along the Ohio River, Durkin reports. “There are a tremendous number of tradesmen there,” he says. In all, more than 6,000 workers engaged in just about all of the crafts should be employed throughout the duration of the construction phase, expected to last until the early 2020s.

Another 35 members of the District 2 hall are working at the Lawrence County power plant project, Durkin says. “The weather wasn’t cooperating with us at first, but it’s improved and the site is moving along pretty good.”

The new plant is being developed by Tyr Energy, a U.S. subsidiary of Japanese energy giant Itochu and is expected to employ about 500 workers during the construction period.

And, oil and gas work has begun to rebound, especially in southwestern Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. The industry needs operating engineers to prepare well pads for energy companies looking to drill in the Utica and Marcellus shale plays. “It was slow for a little more than a year, but it’s taken a turn for the better,” Durkin says.

Despite the overload of work across the region, he’s confident that his local will fully staff all of these jobs.

“Local 66 will be able to man the jobs that come available,” Durkin says. “We have seven district offices from Youngstown to Erie, and down through Pittsburgh and as far as State College,” he adds. “So, we have a large area to draw from.”

Pictured: PurFoods LLC moved from Iowa to North Jackson in 2012. The maker of packaged meals is beginning a $1.35 million expansion.

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.