Commercial and governmental building projects in the Puget Sound area helped propel the Tacoma into the top rank of construction employment hot spots in the country this year, a new study reveals.
The Tacoma-Lakewood area ranked third in the nation in construction employment growth over the 12 months ending in November, new figures from the Associated General Contractors of America reveal.
The Tacoma area added 3,400 construction jobs from November 2014 through November 2015. That’s an 18 percent increase over the the 18,900 construction workers employed a year earlier in Pierce County.
The Tacoma area’s increase in jobs exceeded even the Seattle area’s increase of 2,800 jobs or a 3 percent increase. The state’s largest city and its metropolitan area including Bellevue and Everett, however, counted 85,200 workers employed in construction compared with the Tacoma area’s 22,300.
The Tacoma area’s construction job percentage increase was exceeded only by Weirton-Stuebenville, West Virginia-Ohio with a 50 percent increase and Boise, Idaho, where the employed construction workforce jumped by 19 percent. The Weirton-Stuebenville increase, 800 jobs, came on a much smaller base of jobs than Tacoma’s.
Four Pacific Northwest metropolitan areas, Tacoma and Wenatchee in Washington and Boise and Coeur d’Alene in Idaho, were among the top 10 areas nationwide in construction job percentage gains, according to the AGC.
Nationwide, 190 of the 358 metropolitan areas studied by the AGC saw construction employment increase from November 2014 to November 2015.
Tim Attebery, director of the Associated General Contractors of Washington’s southern division office in Fife, said that while construction activity in Pierce County is healthy, the boom in commercial construction in the Seattle and Bellevue areas also is driving construction employment increases in Pierce County when Pierce County workers commute to King County to help fill construction job vacancies.
“Construction activity in Western Washington is much healthier than in much of the rest of the country,” he said.
By some accounts, high-rise construction in downtown Seattle is third only to New York and San Francisco, he said. Seattle may pass San Francisco in active projects next year if work begins at a majority of the planned buildings in the Emerald City.
Employment Security Department regional economist Jim Vleming said active Pierce County road and military construction projects also are driving the higher employment numbers.
“I expect the pace will continue in 2016,” he said, as new highway and industrial projects begin in the South Sound.
Even with higher construction employment, Pierce County still lags the state and King County in unemployment. The county had an unemployment rate of 5.7 percent in November compared with 5.3 percent for the state and 4.6 percent for King County. All figures are not seasonally adjusted.
An economist who studied the region’s construction activity for the AGC predicted a 10 percent increase in that activity in 2016 after a 12 percent jump in 2015, said Attebery.
Attebery said the construction of a planned methanol plant on the Tacoma Tideflats could bring another boost to local construction employment. Northwest Innovation Works, a Chinese-backed company, has said it will spend some $3.4 billion building a plant to convert natural gas to methanol. The plant’s site at the head of the Port of Tacoma’s Blair Waterway was once the site of a Kaiser aluminum smelter.
Construction on the first phase of the plant is scheduled to begin in the third quarter of 2017. At its peak, the construction project will employ 1,000 workers, the company said. The first phase of the plant is scheduled to open in 2020 and the second phase about a year later.
The state’s new transportation expansion plan could also ramp up construction activity, said construction industry officials. Part of that plan is to complete state Route 167 from Puyallup to Interstate 5 and the Tacoma Tideflats. The state has already purchased much of the right-of-way for the project and has finished preliminary planning.
Attebery said the construction boom is beginning to put a strain on the supply of skilled construction workers. “The No. 1 problem is the lack of bodies,” he said.
Unions and construction companies are reaching out to young workers to get them to enter the construction trades, but the results have been disappointing.
“If you’re in your 20s you can work in retail and earn $10 an hour, or you can become an apprentice in construction and earn $25 an hour,” he said. Fully qualified construction workers in some trades make up to $45 an hour, he said.
John Gillie: 253-597-8663