Valley unions struggling to attract the young and replace aging unions

By Jamison Cocklin


An aging workforce and the nation’s strong emphasis on a college degree for high school graduates have left trade unions in the Mahoning Valley with the challenge of persuading the young to join their ranks to meet growing construction demands.

The problem is not unique — a skilled-labor gap has been projected at job sites and manufacturing facilities nationwide for years.

But while Ohio has hemorrhaged manufacturing jobs since the late 1970s, and jobs in its construction industry declined by nearly 30 percent between 2001 and 2011, moderate growth in the state’s economy — driven in the Northeast by a burgeoning shale-gas industry, a steadily improving economic outlook and a rising housing market — has construction bouncing back.

The turnaround has some of the Valley’s 22 skilled trade unions — such as plumbers, electricians, heavy equipment operators and carpenters — facing varying challenges.

With few exceptions, applications for apprenticeship programs are down.

“We’ve come through this before. We’ve spent decades in nepotism — dad wanted to get their kid in the programs,” said Don Crane, president of the Western Reserve Building & Construction Trades Council, which represents 14 crafts and a network of 22 unions throughout the Valley.

“We’ve always sort of been thought of as the gas company — you can’t get in unless you know someone. That’s not the case anymore at all. We’re wide open, but we’re still facing a bit of a hurdle with guidance counselors and the people that have contact with young people.”

There’s now a suite of high profile projects taking place throughout the Valley. Unions are busy providing workers to a $20 million expansion project at Northside Medical Center, a $100 million, seven-story tower at St. Elizabeth’s Boardman campus and a $300 million cryogenic processing facility for the oil and gas industry in Springfield Township.

Ongoing projects at GM Lordstown, Vallourec Star, hundreds of pipelines in eastern Ohio and new housing construction have kept employment demand steady for a good-paying sector of the economy, union officials say.

To be sure, local unions are meeting demand without problems. Many have achieved 100 percent employment for their members.

But those opportunities are not always going to Valley workers, Crane said. Demand, especially in the oil and gas industry, has left the trade council calling far-off unions in places such as Wheeling, W. Va., Pittsburgh and other parts of the state to meet its needs in the Valley.

“We’re meeting demand. The problem is when you look ahead,” said Jim Burgham, business manager at the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 64 in Youngstown. “Applications for the apprenticeship programs have been going down for years, and lately it’s been a noticeable decrease from years past.”

About five years ago, Burgham said, hundreds of apprentice applications rolled into Local 64. This year, the union received about 70 applications and after basic requirements are met, such as having a high school diploma, a driver’s license and passing an admittance test, applicants dwindle to about 40.

This year’s class at Local 64 has 12 students enrolled, which will meet workforce demand, but future classes might need to be much larger.

It’s a problem because in 2012, 53 percent of the nation’s skilled trade workers were 45 years or older, according to Economic Modeling Specialists International, which analyzes data on the labor market for businesses.

Last year in Ohio, 57 percent of the state’s skilled workforce was 45 or older, the 12th oldest skilled workforce in the country, according to the same data.

A lack of interest, combined with efforts to drive students toward college instead of trade schools or union programs, and attrition through retirement, means the unions have to do more to increase enrollment, Crane said.

He added that hundreds of positions will need to be filled here in coming years.

“I just think the young people are not being educated or informed about the building trades,” Burgham said. “It’s a good viable option. That’s great if you want to go to college, but if you don’t, there’s other avenues.”

Butch Taylor, business manager at the Plumber and Pipefitters Local 396, said four years ago the union was struggling with 40 percent employment. That’s changed to 100 percent, and the union has had to increase the size of its apprenticeship classes.

Unlike some other unions, applications are up at Local 396, which received 200 applications this year for its five-year program. Problems there are different.

Of those applicants, only 10 were women and minorities. Increasing diversity is a major goal at the pipefitters union, Taylor said.

What’s more, he added, a serious shortage of qualified welders exists in the Valley. Complex welds on a growing number of heavily regulated pipelines and at processing facilities that will move oil and gas have absorbed what welders were here. Better training and outreach efforts of all kinds have increased at many Valley unions to help fill the potential voids, officials say.

One thing is for sure, Taylor said: The trades pay well.

In Ohio, the median hourly wage for a tradesman is $18.72, according to EMSI. Taylor said it can be much more depending on the craft and skill level.

Taylor said those graduating from area apprenticeship programs will have the earning power of anyone with a bachelor’s degree, which pays nearly double of someone with a high school diploma, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

“In my opinion we need to keep reaching out to these kids, at an early age, even in junior high,” Taylor said. “This is a strong component of our economy, and it’s a way to make a good living and have high skills.”

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