By JAMISON COCKLIN
Managers at the Laborers’ International Union Local 125 on Market Street have a problem: They anticipate a rush of work in the coming months but fear a shortage of workers to meet that demand.
The union, one of 23 such locals statewide, helps union contractors by providing the necessary laborers that help get a construction project up and running, on track and completed. Its members work on highway projects, commercial and residential construction sites and in the oil and gas industry.
Laborers at Local 125, such as Ray Dickson, a veteran of Desert Storm from McDonald, get vital experience across the spectrum, which often helps springboard their careers, landing them in supervisory roles on pipeline projects, well pads and construction sites. What’s more, they’re paid on a wage scale comparable to a journeyman tradesman, and they enjoy full benefits.
“It’s a great opportunity in a bad economy to make real good money,” said Dickson, who learned of the laborers’ union from a friend last summer after losing his job of 14 years at a local tire company when it closed.
Precipitous declines at vocational schools in the last two decades, spurred by a push to encourage more Americans to attend college and a rapidly changing economy in the Mahoning Valley, have left those like Rocco DiGennaro, business manager at the Local 125, scrambling for more younger and older workers alike.
“It’s been mixed. With the way the economy has been here, we were expecting much higher participation,” DiGennaro said. “We didn’t get it. Recently we had 39 applicants. Of those 39, 20 were referred by members’ families. We’ve been looking for more involvement.”
The laborer program has open enrollment, with no fee to apply. Once an applicant becomes a member and starts working, they pay both working and union dues. They’re also trained in classrooms four times per year at a central facility in Millwood where they receive college credit, in addition to on-the-job training.
The union’s current dilemma is a far cry from the throes of unemployment and lack of general work the Valley has witnessed over the years, as it first crawled its way back from Black Monday, when the steel mills began closing in 1977, and then after every recession, both past and present, when the jobless rate hovered well above 10 percent.
If anything, a resurgent regional economy, where the Valley has enjoyed some of the most robust job growth in the state, has presented employers, job seekers and workforce development companies with a new suit of problems.
For Will Shoemaker, 23, of Girard, the oil and gas boom, for example, has meant holding on to the hope that he can soon break into the industry. Since May 2012, he’s been pounding the pavement and trying to get a job at a small or large company involved in production.
Shoemaker has a mechanical background, and last summer he participated in a Retrain America course at Youngstown State University, where he got a primer about working on a drilling rig. He paid $4,000 for the two-week class.
“I’ve applied to more places than I can remember, more than 50 for certain,” Shoemaker said. “[Oil and gas companies] prefer people who have more experience. I’ve gotten some call backs, but for some reason everyone wants you to have a year of experience. Where am I supposed to get it?”
Bert Cene, director at the Mahoning Columbiana Training Association, which administers both counties’ One-Stop programs and specializes in workforce development, said that’s why it’s important for the region to focus on growing its oil and gas supply chain.
“We’re seeing a lot of job orders across the spectrum. What we’re not seeing is companies like Chesapeake coming to us and asking for someone to work on their rigs,” Cene said. “Existing companies, and new manufacturers like Exterran, are asking us for help. To be honest, those kinds of jobs are more sustainable. A well is drilled and done in something like 45 days.”
As the Valley’s manufacturing base changes to accommodate new technologies and new products, employers are left searching to fill vacant jobs. Last year, employment services company Manpower noted in a research paper that a shortage of skilled workers is among the top hiring challenges in six of the world’s 10 biggest economies.
Vic Ing, president of the Alliance Solutions Group of the Mahoning Valley, which provides staffing services across nine industries, including health care, manufacturing and technology, said demand from employers seeking applicants is high in the region, which has posed new challenges for the company.
“There’s strong demand in a few different categories,” Ing said. “Good old manufacturing and warehouse positions for entry level unskilled work is up, but there’s heavy demand for skilled positions in manufacturing right now.”
A big change in recent months, Ing said, is applicants who are employed but looking for work elsewhere.
“People are spending money again, companies have to deliver products and services,” he added. “The economy is in complete recovery mode with demand for products, and that takes additional workers, which aren’t always easy to find. We serve our clients any way we can, but sometimes we’re finding it difficult to give them what they’re looking for.”