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Seattle Construction Unions Driving Massive Building Boom, Young Worker Development

A rendering of the proposed Washington State Convention Center expansion

A rendering of the proposed Washington State Convention Center expansion

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A recent Seattle Times piece looks into the upcoming construction boom in the region and who will be manning the project.  The city has a long history of construction booms, but the latest wave is big enough to keep the region’s union tradesmen and women employed for the foreseeable future. Many of the projects are considered ‘recession-proof.’

Monty Anderson, head of the Seattle Building and Construction Trades Council, told the Times: “I represent 11,500 construction workers.  All of them are working.”

Lee Newgent, Executive Director of the Washington State Building and Construction Trades Council added: “We’re in for a good, solid, absolute full-employment decade.  Starting right now.”

Experts say that the region will see as much as $25 billion in construction funding over the next decade.  That number includes projects at the Naval Base Kitsap on Hood Canal, Puget Sound oil refineries, Boeing’s new 777X wing facilities in Everett, and office space in Bellevue.  In the city of Seattle, projects include the massive expansion of the downtown Washington State Convention Center, the Elliot Bay Seawall and Highway 99 tunnel projects, SOUND Transit light rail lines, and work at the port of Seattle.  Perhaps most importantly, these projects are providing jobs to the region’s workers. 

“These are all good jobs for people right here in the Seattle area,” Anderson said.  “Every time you see a road cone, that’s a job.”

It is estimated that roughly three-fourths of workers on publicly financed projects and two-thirds on all projects are union tradesmen.

A big step for the city came in the form of a Project Labor Agreement (PLA) proposed by Mayor Ed Murray, which was approved by the city council earlier this year:

The goal is to avoid labor disputes while “insourcing” the highest number of jobs possible to workers of color, women, veterans and residents of poorer neighborhoods. The pact essentially moves the task of developing more-diverse workforces out of the hands of public bodies — where affirmative-action programs have been ruled illegal — and shifts it to labor unions, which are increasingly receptive.

Under Seattle’s new Priority-Hire Agreement, public projects of $5 million or more require contractors to offer at least 20 percent of all construction hours to workers from disadvantaged ZIP codes. Contractors also are required to reserve 15 percent of work for apprentice workers, and are urged to recruit women and people of color into accelerated apprenticeship programs.

Apprenticeship enrollment is expected to double in coming years. The ironworkers alone have added nearly 300 apprentices the past 18 months — some recruited through programs such as a training school at the state women’s prison in Purdy.

The construction boom couldn’t come at a better time for young workers.  There are currently 75,000 building trades members in the state with another 5,000 expected to join the ranks in the next year and a half.  The growth of the trades is especially important given the number of baby boomers approaching retirement.  

When the current boom cycle began nearly two years ago, the first jobs were given to those who had been unemployed during the great recession.  To replenish the workforce and find replacements for retirees and those who changed professions during the recession local unions began creating programs to help them identify and acquire a younger and more diverse workforce.  Many of those workers are now on their way to completing their apprenticeships.  

Among them is Terrell Woods, now 26, who worked in small scale local construction after graduating high school.  He took advantage of opportunities provided by the local Ironworkers union and never looked back.  Woods worked throughout his training and on the brink of becoming a journey-level worker. He will earn $20 an hour plus full benefits to start, and could swing up to $60 an hour in time.  Speaking to the Times, Woods explained how much he enjoys his career.

“I like the blood, sweat and tears.  I like waking up every morning and thinking about putting things together. It’s all about that — putting something together you didn’t think could be put together. But you did put it together.


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