BUILD IT AND THERE MAY BE A LABOR SHORTAGE

Chip fab and convention center projects may tax available help

CHRIS CHURCHILL BUSINESS WRITER
Section: Main,  Page: A1

Date: Monday, August 17, 2009

Two years ago, leaders in the Capital Region's construction industry were wrestling with a worker shortage and worrying that the building of a massive computer-chip factory in Malta would exacerbate the problem.


The recession has helped alleviate those concerns -- but it hasn't eliminated them entirely.


Some in the industry still look at the requirement of the GlobalFoundries plant -- an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 workers -- and wonder if the Capital Region can meet the demand, especially if projects like the Albany Convention Center occur simultaneously.


"It's really going to tax the labor resources," said Mark Breslin, an Albany-based vice president at Turner Construction Co. "The labor shortages that we had haven't really gone away."


Instead, they've gone into a temporary remission, Breslin said.


M+W Zander, the German company managing the construction of the $4.2 billion GlobalFoundries plant, says the number of workers at the site on any one day will peak at 1,100 to 1,200 people.


But the make-up of workers will continuously shift during the two-year construction period -- as laborers with different specialties, and working for dozens of contractors -- come and go.


That means the total number of workers who ultimately contribute to the project will be in the 4,000 to 6,000 range, said Rick Whitney, M+W Zander's chief executive for U.S. operations.


Whitney said the construction timeline is designed to maximize local employment. The plant could be constructed more quickly, he said, but doing so would require far more workers from outside the area.


Still, he conceded, there are likely to be labor shortages in specialized construction areas. (He declined to name the areas.) And under the labor agreement reached in June between GlobalFoundries and union groups, it will be up to local trade unions to decide how and with whom to fill the gaps when shortages do occur.


Whitney said the down economy will make it significantly easier to have a mostly local labor force construct the factory.


Indeed, the number of people who have jobs in the construction field in the Capital Region has declined by about 2,200, to about 17,000 overall, according to the state Department of Labor. That's means there's a significant pool of people eager for work.


GlobalFoundries construction "is coming at the perfect time for the companies that are going to have to find the workers," said James Ross, who analyzes the Capital Region labor market for the state Labor Department.


"But it's also a perfect time for the region, because we need this boost for the economy."


"It's kind of acting like our own stimulus package," added Todd Helfrich, managing director of the Eastern Contractors Association, a Colonie trade group representing unionized commercial builders.


Before the recession, many in the commercial industry worried about the chip-fab's impact on worker supply in part because it seemed the Capital Region might have several major projects going at once -- like the redevelopment of the Harriman State Office Campus or the Capital Grande condominium plan in downtown Albany, to name just a few.


But the economy has stalled those projects and many others. Officials planning the Albany Convention Center are still aiming for a spring groundbreaking, though the $225 million project still needs a source of funding.


That project will require 480 workers at its peak and nearly 1,800 workers overall, said Duncan Stewart, executive director of the Albany Convention Center Authority.


Neither Stewart nor Gavin Donohue, the authority's chairman, expects a shortage of workers to affect construction. "I'm not worried at all about that," Donohue said.


Chris Churchill can be reached at 454-5442 or by e-mail at cchurchill@timesunion.com.


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See the Timesunion.com business blog for more stories on GlobalFoundries at http://blog.timesunion.com/business/category/globalfoundries/