Wanted: 7,000 construction workers for Intel chip factories

JOHNSTOWN, Ohio — Ohio’s largest economic development project ever comes with a major employment challenge: how do you find 7,000 construction workers in an already thriving construction environment when there is also a national shortage of people working in the crafts.

On hand is semiconductor production worth $20 billion near the state capital, which was announced by Intel 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 approximately $135,000.

Before that happens, the 1,000 hectare site must be leveled and the semiconductor factories built.

“This project reverberated across the country,” said Michael Engbert, an Ohio-based official with the Laborers’ International Union of North America.

“We don’t answer calls every day from members hundreds or thousands of miles away asking if they want to transfer to Columbus, Ohio,” he said. “It’s 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 committed $150 million in educational funding to grow the semiconductor industry regionally and nationally.

Construction is expected to accelerate after Congress approved last month a package to promote the semiconductor industry and scientific research in an effort to create more high-tech jobs in the United States and help it compete better with international rivals. It includes more than $52 billion in subsidies and other incentives to the semiconductor industry, as well as a 25% tax credit for those companies that invest in chip plants in the U.S.

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The central project in Ohio does not immediately require all 7,000 workers. They are also only part of what will be needed as the Intel project transforms hundreds of largely rural acres about 30 minutes east of Columbus.

For example, just six months after Intel announced its Ohio operation, Missouri-based VanTrust Real Estate announced it was building a 200-acre business 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. Other projects for additional suppliers are expected.

California-based Intel will rely on lessons learned from building past semiconductor sites nationally and globally to ensure sufficient construction workers, the company said in a statement.

“One of Intel’s top reasons for choosing Ohio is access to the region’s robust workforce,” the company said. “It won’t be without its challenges, but we’re confident there’s enough demand to fill these jobs.”

Labor leaders and state officials acknowledge that there is currently no pool of 7,000 additional workers in central Ohio, where other ongoing projects include a 28-story Hilton near downtown Columbus, a $2 billion addition to the medical center. Ohio State University center and an Amgen $365 million biomanufacturing plant not far from the Intel factory.

Not to mention at least three new data centers from Google and Amazon, plans for a $200 million new municipal courthouse south of downtown Columbus, and solar panel projects that could require nearly 6,000 construction jobs on their own.

Federal data shows about 45,000 residential and commercial construction workers in central Ohio. That number increased by 1,800 from May 2021 to May 2022, marking a future deficit given current and future demand.

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(asterisk) I don’t know of any commercial construction company that doesn’t hire staff,” said Mary Tebeau, executive director of the Builders Exchange of Central Ohio, a construction trade association.

The imbalance is being offset by training programs, a push to encourage more high school students to enter the profession, and pure economics. Including overtime, wages for skilled craftsmen could reach $125,000 a year, said Dorsey Hager, executive secretary-treasurer of the Columbus Building Trades Council.

Or, as Lieutenant Governor Jon Husted, the state’s economic development point person, puts it, the Intel project is so big and lucrative that it will create opportunities for people who didn’t see construction jobs in the future.

“If you’re willing to pay people more to do something, you’ll find the talent,” he said.

In addition to new and foreign workers, some are likely to be pulled from the housing industry, thinning out an already shortage of homebuilders, said Ed Brady, CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Home Builders Institute.

That creates a risk of housing shortages that could slow the very kind of economic development Intel is fueling, said Ed Dietz of the National Association of Home Builders.

“How do you attract that business investment if you can’t also make additional housing available for the growth of the working population?” he said.

Central Ohio is expected to reach 3 million residents by 2050, a rate that will require 11,000 to 14,000 homes 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 reaching that target in 2020 with 11,000 units.

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“We know we have some work to do as a region,” Noll said.

Shortage or not, work is underway on and near the Intel site, where on a recent August morning parades of trucks thundered down country roads as the beeping of multiple construction vehicles rang out in the distance.

It was just another day for pipelayer Taylor Purdy, who was making his regular 30-minute drive from Bangs, Ohio, to his construction work to widen a road past the Intel plant.

Purdy, 28, spends his days in trenches helping to install storm and sanitary sewers and water pipes. Overtime is plentiful as deadlines approach. Intel’s construction work is in its early stages as earth-moving equipment remodels the 400 hectares of former farm and residential land to be converted into an industrial estate.

Purdy said he likes the job security of being involved in such a big project. He’s also found that unlike other jobs he’s had, he doesn’t have to explain to people what he’s up to.

“They all know what I’m talking about,” he said.

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