Skilled Tradesmen Look Forward to Busy Season

New highway projects, plus the prospect of big-ticket ventures such as a $900 million electrical power plant in Lordstown, bode well for skilled tradesmen this season, officials say.

That’s welcome news for those in the construction and building trades, which for the last several years have witnessed a surge in demand because of the oil and gas industry. However, that business has all but evaporated because of low oil and natural gas prices, leaving local unions to pursue more traditional projects.

“We see a bright 2016,” observes Butch Taylor, business manager for Local 396 of the Plumbers and Pipefitters union. “Energy itself has slowed down, but overall, the natural-gas power plants in our area, growth at Youngstown State University, school rebuilding and hospital work – those are still very good.”

Taylor says the economy here has slowed because of the lack of work in oil and gas, but the number of projects on the books for this construction season looks promising for his members. “There’s work at GM, the hospitals are talking about expansions and there’s future infrastructure work,” he says.

Plus, there’s continued business with HVAC and refrigeration projects, spurred by growth in downtown Youngstown, supermarkets and shopping centers. “It’s not great, but it’s good,” Taylor says.

Among the biggest projects on the horizon is Clean Energy Future’s $900 million natural-gas power plant slated for Lordstown. “It’s a big industrial job,” Taylor says. The business manager projects that initial construction on the site – a 17-acre site along Henn Parkway – could begin by March or April. “By mid-summer, with the power plant underway, we should be in full employment,” he says.

Boston-based Clean Energy Future plans to construct a natural gas-fueled plant here because of its proximity to electrical lines and because of the large supply of natural gas that energy companies are tapping into from the Utica and Marcellus shale plays in eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania. About 500 workers would be used to construct the plant. Initially, the company announced a May 2018 target date for completion.

Jack Morris, business manager for IBEW Local 573 in Warren, reports that the project has approved working exclusively with the Western Reserve Building and Construction Trades Council, which ensures that all construction would be performed by the local trades. “That’s big,” he says, noting that the project would take his membership to full employment by the second half of this year.

Meanwhile, Local 573 is wrapping up some of the Mahoning Valley’s larger ventures, including Matalco’s $125 million aluminum plant at the Ohio Commerce Park in Lordstown. “That’s been a very nice project for us,” he says, noting IBEW workers should be on site for another several months. And, the new headquarters for The Cafaro Co. in Niles is keeping the Warren local busy as the spring construction season nears.

Among other big projects that construction trades are counting on are a second natural gas-fueled power plant announced last year for Wellsville, says Clint Powell, business manager at Local 809 of the Laborers International Union, which has jurisdiction on projects in Columbiana County.

“We’re hoping they might start that project in Wellsville in 2017,” he says. South Field Energy LLC announced in October that it plans to construct a $1.1 billion natural gas electrical plant in Columbiana County near Wellsville. The project would require a peak workforce of 550 construction tradesmen.

Powell acknowledges work at the moment is slow, but qualifies that it should pick up as spring sets in. Last year, Powell says, his members finished their part of the Spectra Energy Ohio Pipeline Energy Network, or OPEN, in November. OPEN is a 76-mile pipeline that runs through Columbiana, Carroll, Jefferson, Belmont and Monroe counties in Ohio. The project has a 12-mile stretch of 30-inch pipe in Columbiana County that starts at the Kensington cryogenic plant.

“That was a great project,” he says. “We had about 200 guys on that.”

Other pipeline projects are in the works for this season also, Powell reports. “We have two projects – the Cornerstone Marathon line from Cadiz to Canton, and the Sunoco Mariner East line, which will run from Scio into Pennsylvania,” he says. “I think this year’s going to be good as well.”

Stimulating much of the work for local tradesmen over the last several years has been oil and gas exploration across eastern Ohio’s Utica shale. But low oil prices have made it unprofitable for these companies to continue drilling or invest in new midstream operations this year.

“There are still some projects on the books, but they’re not going to happen” until oil and gas prices rise, says Rocky DiGennaro, business agent for Laborers Local 125, whose membership and jurisdiction is Mahoning County. “We’re kind of slow. We have about 100 not working at the moment.”

Over the last four years, projects related to the oil and gas industry – construction on Pennant Midstream’s cryogenic plant in Springfield Township, for example – helped ensure full employment for his rank and file, DiGennaro says. Other big projects such as the expansion at Mercy Health’s St. Elizabeth Boardman campus and construction of Hollywood Gaming at Mahoning Valley Race Course in Austintown added to an already busy schedule, he says.

Local 125 is likely to be consumed with infrastructure work this year, DiGennaro says, which he expects to boost his local to full employment. “It looks like it’s going to be a lot of highway work this year,” he notes. “We should be at full employment.”

Bill Booth, president of IBEW Local 64 in Boardman, observes that commercial and industrial work is off to a slow start, where residential and teledata business is very strong. “We’re anticipating picking up this spring and summer,” he says.

Among jobs underway are the new Mahoning County Educational Services building in Canfield on the campus of the Mahoning County Career and Technical Center. “We supplied the manpower for Tri-Area Electric for that job. They’re the main contractors,” he says. “It’s been staying fairly steady.”

Despite the slowdown in oil and gas, Booth is optimistic about more work at Pennant Midstream’s Springfield Township cryogenic plant as well as the prospects for an even larger project in Monaca, Pa., where Royal Dutch Shell is considering construction of a $2 billion to $4 billion ethane cracker plant.

“We would no doubt have work opportunities out there,” Booth says. VEC Inc., an IBEW union contractor, is performing prep work that would serve construction operations at the site.

A major challenge these skilled trades unions face is the lack of qualified applicants who show interest in pursuing such careers, says Dan Fry, labor relations director for the Builders Association of Eastern Ohio and Western Pennsylvania. The organization, based in Vienna Township, negotiates contracts with the local trades on behalf of private contractors.

“Our apprenticeship programs are always looking for people,” he says. “We just don’t always get qualified applicants.”

Tradesmen are getting older and the industry is going to require a skilled workforce to replace them when they retire, and there simply aren’t enough applicants in the pipeline, Fry says. “There’s going to be a skills gap,” he says.

Those who enter the building trades stand to make a comfortable living, Fry emphasizes. The average base wage for tradesmen in the region is $25.91 an hour, excluding benefits packages. However, wages depend on the trade, as some skills pay higher than others.

“You have a low end of $21 or $22 an hour, and a higher end of $31 to $33 an hour,” Fry says.

Last year, The Builders negotiated four labor agreements and is scheduled to bargain on four more this year, he says. In 2017, nine are scheduled. “That’ll be a busy year,” he observes.

Pictured: The $125-million Matalco plant in Lordstown will keep IBEW Local 573 workers busy for the next several months.

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