Industry Report

Power Plants, Infrastructure Keep Union Halls Empty

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Work on energy-generation plants in the region and on infrastructure is among the projects keeping the building trades active this construction season.

By and large, representatives of the building trades report numerous projects underway this spring and summer are employing their members. 

“We still have some people who are not working but for the most part we’re at full employment,” says Rocky DiGennaro, business agent for the 400-member Laborers International Local 125.

DiGennaro, also the president of Western Reserve Building and Construction Trades Council, reports the same is true for the 8,000-plus members of the trade unions that the council represents. 

“There’s a lot of work in the area,” DiGennaro says. “It’s a good time to be a union construction worker.”

It’s sentiment business agents and other representatives of the trade unions share. 

The list of projects that members of Laborers Local 125 are working on include the $68 million renovation of the Youngstown wastewater-treatment plant; a couple of Ohio Turnpike projects, including a $14 million widening near the Eastgate toll plaza; the new Amazon distribution center in North Jackson; the Youngstown Foundation Amphitheatre and the new media center at Stambaugh Stadium at Youngstown State University.  

Like DiGennaro, Tony Deley, business manager for Ironworkers Local 207, reports that his membership is near full employment. The local, which covers 10 counties in eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, has 330 active members. 

Long-term projects are driving the activity, Deley says. Ironworkers Local 207 has 30 members working at the $863 million Hickory Run gas-fueled power plant near New Castle, Pa. Ironworkers also are working on South Field Energy Partners’ $1.3 billion plant in Wellsville for which ground was broken recently.

“Right now we’re just starting the reinforcing bar,” he says. “Then we’ll have a gang of six for rigging.” Overall employment for the union should be north of 100 during the project. 

Local 207 members will start soon on the Ellwood Engineered Castings plant in Hubbard, which should employ 30 ironworkers at peak, he says.   

Other projects employing his members include Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Retirement Services’ $31 million project in Liberty Township, Steelite International USA’s expansion in Neshannock Township, Pa., Sweeney Buick GMC’s new showroom and the Campbell Community Literacy Workforce and Cultural Center. Maintenance work for Vallourec in Youngstown and NLMK Group in Farrell, Pa., also keeps union members busy. 

Maintenance work at Vallourec as well as the Arconic plant in Niles represents a significant share of work for members of Local 1090 of the Millwrights and Piledrivers union, says its president, Don Crane. 

Crane is Ohio director of the Indiana-Kentucky-Ohio Regional Council of Carpenters. The council has 2,400 members, including more than 150 in the Youngstown area. Nearly all of them are working, Crane says. 

“We are absolutely at full employment,” he adds. 

Ellwood Engineered Castings and Trumbull Energy Center will also represent big jobs for millwrights and piledrivers, he predicts, and South Field Energy is “enormous” and “will be for a couple years.” 

Members of Local 64 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers also are “pretty much at full employment,” with just a few out looking for specific jobs they want to be on, reports business manager Jim Burgham. 

“We’re spread out all over,” he says. Some of his members are working on the ethane cracker plant Royal Dutch Shell is building in Beaver County, Pa. Others are staying closer to home, working at Shepherd of the Valley, Amazon, the Campbell Cultural center and YSU. In the coming weeks, electrical workers will begin jobs at Mercy Health and Ellwood Engineered Castings.  

Jack Morse, business manager at IBEW Local 573, also reports his local – with 240 members – is nearly at full employment, even if a lot of the work is out of his jurisdiction. 

“There’s plenty of work in surrounding areas so anybody is able to work,” he says. Many of his members are working at the Shell ethane cracker and the Hickory Run plant. 

There are “decent-sized projects” in Orwell, including an addition at Kennametal Inc., Morse adds. And Arconic is providing his members steady work. 

Not all building trade unions are reporting as robust employment numbers as their counterparts. 

“It’s actually a little slow in our area,” though there are jobs within driving distance, says Marty Loney, business agent for Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 306. The local has 430 active members, 650 including retirees.  

Local projects employing his members include the Amazon warehouse as well as Preston BMW and Lyra Salon in Boardman. Loney estimates 74 are working on the Shell cracker and another 45 at the Hickory Run power plant.

Upcoming opportunities for the trades include the three stores the Meijer chain plans to develop in Mahoning and Trumbull counties, DiGennaro says. 

From the “limited conversations” held with company representatives, they “have been receptive to the skilled trades,” he adds.     

Other prospects include the TJX Companies Inc.’s HomeGoods $170 million regional distribution center in Lordstown, the proposed Trumbull Energy Center in Lordstown and a $30 million turnpike project that is scheduled to go to bid in November 2020. 

Ironworkers Local 207’s Deley also expresses hope that the HomeGoods warehouse and second Lordstown power plant will mean work for his members. 

TJX HomeGoods could employ as many as 200 of Crane’s members, with all of the conveyors and materials handling inside the warehouse. 

While Crane sees “a glimmer of hope” that something could happen with the General Motors Lordstown Complex, “we can’t wait on it,” he says.

Many of the locals also point to a common – and familiar – problem: recruitment to keep up with attrition from retirement and other factors. 

“We have a lot of job openings that we’re unable to fill,” DiGennaro says.   

“Obviously you don’t want to take too many people in so you have enough work for them,” DiGennaro says. Even so, all the building trades face the issues of an aging membership. 

“We still have this opioid crisis statewide,” he adds. “That can be an issue.” 

The building trades council is working with the Builders Association of Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania on an all-trades day in September targeted at getting eighth- and ninth-graders interested in the trades, he says. “We want to catch those junior high kids at an early age,” DiGennaro  says.  

“We’ve been holding our own, but it could get to a point” where there’s a shortage of millwrights and piledrivers, Crane acknowledges. His local has been able to draw new apprentices from career centers, as well as people who were employed at GM Lordstown.   

“We have attrition. We have people who retire every year,”  Loney says. “We absolutely look into the future as best we can. We look at how many are going to be retiring and adjust apprenticeships as well as organizing recruitment.”  

To address the issue, Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 306 secured a grant through the Eastgate Regional Council of Governments to bring on a full-time welding instructor. 

“We have some spots available for somebody looking to change their career or looking to start a new career,” Loney says. 

The ironworkers, like other building trades, face manpower issues, Deley acknowledges. “We are hiring monthly, if not daily,” he says. 

To address the shortage, the local launched a probationary membership program. After a brief orientation program and safety training, these probationary members are available for hiring. 

“They’ll work through spring and summer, and then we’ll assess them,” Deley says.  

IBEW Local 64 is working with educational service centers to reach out to guidance counselors, Burgham says. Training directors also have gone into grade schools for outreach.

“We’re trying to get to them pre-high school so they can understand what classes they need to take,” such as algebra and trigonometry, Burgham  says. “They have got to be up on their math and reading and retention skills.”

File photo: Royal Dutch Shell began construction on its ethane cracker plant in Monaca, Pa., in 2017. The project is drawing tradesmen from the Mahoning Valley.

Copyright 2020 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.