JOHNSTOWN, Ohio — Ohio’s largest-ever economic development project comes with a big employment challenge: how to find 7,000 construction workers in an already booming building environment when there’s also a national shortage of people working in the trades.
At hand is the $20 billion semiconductor manufacturing operation near the state’s capital, announced by Intel earlier this year. These two factories are known collectively as fabs and will be open by 2025. The average wage for the workers at the plant is $135,000.
It is necessary to level the site on 1,000 acres and build the semiconductor factories before this can happen.
“This project reverberated nationwide,” said Michael Engbert, an Ohio-based official with the Laborers’ International Union of North America.
“We don’t field calls every day from members hundreds or thousands of miles away asking about transferring into Columbus, Ohio,” he said. “It’s because they know Intel is coming.”
Ohio provided incentives totaling approximately $2 billion, which included a tax cut for 30 years, to help Intel win the contract. Intel has proposed $150 million for education funding to help grow the semiconductor industry nationally and regionally.
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Construction is expected to accelerate following Congress’ approval last month of a package boosting the semiconductor industry and scientific research in a bid to create more high-tech jobs in the United States and help it better compete with international rivals. This package provides more than $52 million in incentives and grants for the semiconductor sector, along with a 25% tax credit to companies investing in U.S.-based chip plants.
For the central Ohio project, all 7,000 workers aren’t required right away. They’re also only a portion of what will be needed as the Intel project transforms hundreds of largely rural acres about 30 minutes east of Columbus.
The Ohio-based Intel had revealed its Ohio business six months ago. Missouri’s VanTrust Real Estate has announced that it is building a 500-acre (220-ha) park to house Intel suppliers. The site’s 5 million square feet (464,515 square meters) is equivalent to nearly nine football fields. There are also plans for other suppliers.
The company stated that Intel, a California-based semiconductor manufacturer, will draw on the lessons from previous sites built nationally and internationally to provide enough workers.
“One of Intel’s top reasons for choosing Ohio is access to the region’s robust workforce,” the company said. “It will not be without its challenges, but we are confident there is enough demand that these jobs will be filled.”
Labor leaders and state officials acknowledge there’s not currently a pool of 7,000 extra workers in central Ohio, where other current projects include a 28-story Hilton near downtown Columbus, a $2 billion addition to The Ohio State University’s medical center, and a $365 million Amgen biomanufacturing plant not far from the Intel plant.
And that’s not counting at least three new Google and Amazon data centers, plans for a new $200 million municipal courthouse south of downtown Columbus and solar array projects that could require nearly 6,000 construction jobs by themselves.
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Federal data indicates that there are about 45,000 commercial and home construction workers in central Ohio. The number of workers in central Ohio increased by 1,800 over May 2021-2022. This indicates a potential deficit based on future and current demand.
“I don’t know of a single commercial construction company that’s not hiring,” said Mary Tebeau, executive director of the Builders Exchange of Central Ohio, a construction industry trade association.
Training programs and economics are two ways to offset the inequalities. The annual salary for skilled tradespersons could reach $125,000 annually if you include overtime, according to Dorsey Hager, executive secretary-treasurer at the Columbus Building Trades Council.
Or Lt. Gov. Jon Husted, the state’s economic development point person, puts it, the Intel project is so big and lucrative it will create opportunities for people who didn’t see construction jobs in their future.
“When you’re willing to pay people more to do something, you will find the talent,” he said.
Ed Brady, the CEO of Washington’s Home Builders Institute, stated that in addition to out-of-state and new workers, many will be pulled out of residential construction, which would reduce the supply of homebuilders.
This creates the risk of a housing shortage that can slow down the economic growth Intel is promoting, stated Ed Dietz from the National Association of Home Builders.
“How do you attract those business investments if you can’t also provide additional housing available for the growth in the labor force?” he said.
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Central Ohio will soon have 3 million inhabitants by 2050. This would mean that 11,000-14,000 homes per year are needed. That was before Intel was announced, said Jennifer Noll, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission’s associate director for community development. The region was able to achieve this goal in 2020, when 11,000 units were sold.
“We know we’ve got some work to do as a region,” Noll said.
Shortage or no, there is work underway near and at the Intel site. A parade of trucks raced along country roads last August as multiple construction vehicles beeped far away.
Taylor Purdy, a pipe layer, was only there for another day. He drove his usual 30-minute trip from Bangs, Ohio to his work as a construction worker, widening a road parallel to the Intel plant.
Purdy (28 years old) spends most of his time in trenches assisting with storm, sanitary and waterlines. As deadlines get closer, there is a lot of overtime. As earthmovers transform the former residential and farm land into an industrial area, Intel’s construction is still in its early stages.
Purdy stated that he enjoys having the security and job of working on such large projects. He’s also noticed that, unlike other jobs he has worked, he does not need to explain to people what he is up to.
“They all know what I’m talking about,” he said.
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