JOHNSTOWN, Ohio– Ohio’s biggest economic development project to date brings with it a major employment challenge: How do you find 7,000 construction workers in an already booming construction environment when there’s also a statewide shortage of people working in the trades?
Near the state capital is the $20 billion semiconductor facility that Intel announced earlier this year. When the two factories, known as Fabs, open in 2025, the facility will employ 3,000 people with an average salary of around $135,000.
Before that, the 1,000-hectare site has to be leveled and the semiconductor factories built.
“This project resonated nationally,” said Michael Engbert, an Ohio-based official with the Laborers’ International Union of North America.
“It’s not every day we take calls from members who are hundreds or thousands of miles away asking about a transfer to Columbus, Ohio,” he said. “Because they know Intel is coming.”
To win the project, Ohio offered Intel about $2 billion in incentives, including a 30-year tax break. Intel has earmarked $150 million in education funding aimed at growing the semiconductor industry regionally and nationally.
Construction is expected to accelerate after Congress last month approved a package that will boost the semiconductor industry and scientific research to create more high-tech jobs in the United States and help it compete better with international competitors to compete. It includes more than $52 billion in grants and other incentives for the semiconductor industry, as well as a 25% tax credit for companies investing in US chip fabs
The central Ohio project will not require all 7,000 workers immediately. They’re just part of what’s needed, too, as the Intel project is converting hundreds of mostly rural acres about 30 minutes east of Columbus.
For example, just six months after Intel announced operations in Ohio, Missouri-based VanTrust Real Estate announced it would build a 500-acre industrial park next door to house Intel suppliers. The site’s 5 million square feet (464,515 square meters) is equivalent to nearly nine football fields. Further projects for other suppliers are expected.
The California-based Intel will draw on lessons learned from building previous semiconductor sites nationally and globally to ensure sufficient construction workers, the company said in a statement.
“One of Intel’s key reasons for choosing Ohio is access to the region’s strong workforce,” the company said. “It will not be without its challenges, but we are confident there is enough demand to fill these positions.”
Union leaders and state officials admit there is currently no pool of 7,000 additional workers in central Ohio, where other current projects include a 28-story Hilton near downtown Columbus, a $2 billion expansion of the US Medical Center Ohio State University and a $365 million Amgen include biomanufacturing plans near the Intel plant.
And that’s not counting at least three new Google and Amazon data centers, plans for a new $200 million courthouse south of downtown Columbus, and solar array projects that alone could require nearly 6,000 construction jobs.
Federal data shows about 45,000 domestic and commercial construction workers in central Ohio. This number increased by 1,800 from May 2021 to May 2022, implying a future deficit given current and future needs.
(asterisk) I don’t know of a single commercial construction company that isn’t hiring,” said Mary Tebeau, executive director of the Builders Exchange of Central Ohio, a trade association for the construction industry.
Compensating for the imbalance are educational programs, an attempt to attract more students to enter the workforce, and pure economics. Including overtime, wages for skilled tradesmen could reach $125,000 annually, said Dorsey Hager, executive secretary and treasurer of the Columbus Building Trades Council.
Or like Lt. gov. As Jon Husted, the state’s economic development officer, puts it, the Intel project is so big and lucrative that it will create opportunities for people who don’t see construction jobs in their future.
“If you’re willing to pay people more to do something, you’ll find the talent,” he said.
In addition to new and expatriate workers, some will likely be drawn out of the homebuilder industry, thinning out an already tight supply of homebuilders, said Ed Brady, CEO of the Washington, DC-based Home Builders Institute.
That creates a housing shortage risk that could stall the very kind of economic development Intel is spurring, said Ed Dietz of the National Association of Home Builders.
“How do you attract that business investment if you can’t also provide additional housing for labor force growth?” he said.
Central Ohio is expected to reach 3 million residents by 2050, a rate that would require 11,000 to 14,000 housing units per year. That was before Intel was announced, said Jennifer Noll, associate director for community development for the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission. Meanwhile, the region came closest to that goal in 2020 with 11,000 units.
“We know that we as a region have a lot to do,” said Noll.
Shortages or not, work is underway at and near the Intel site, where parades of trucks rumbled down country lanes on a recent August morning while the beeping of several construction vehicles rang out in the distance.
It was just another day for piper Taylor Purdy, who made his regular 30-minute commute from Bangs, Ohio, to his construction job to help widen a road that runs next to the Intel facility.
Purdy, 28, spends his days in trenches helping to position storm and sewer lines and water pipes. Overtime abounds as deadlines approach. Construction for Intel is in its early stages as earth movers are remodeling the 1,000 acres (400 hectares) of former farm and residential land that will be converted into an industrial site.
Purdy said he likes the job security of being involved in such a large project. He’s also found that unlike other jobs he’s worked at, he doesn’t have to explain to people what he’s up to.
“You all know what I’m talking about,” he said.