Intel hopes to hire 7,000 construction workers on $20 billion chip plant in Ohio

JOHNSTOWN, Ohio — Ohio’s largest economic development project to date comes with a major employment challenge: How to find 7,000 construction workers in an already booming construction environment when there’s also a national shortage of trades workers.

A $20 billion semiconductor manufacturing operation near the state capital has been announced from Intel earlier this year. When the two factories, known as fabs, open in 2025, the facility will employ 3,000 people with an average salary of about $135,000.

Before that can happen, the 1,000-acre site must be leveled and the semiconductor factories built.

“This project resonated across the country,” said Michael Engbert, an Ohio official for the Workers International Union of North America.

“We don’t get calls every day from members hundreds or thousands of miles away asking to transfer to Columbus, Ohio,” he said. “It’s because they know Intel is coming.”

To win the project, Ohio offered Intel about $2 billion in incentives, including a 30-year tax break. Intel has outlined $150 million in educational funding aimed at growing the semiconductor industry regionally and nationally.

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Construction is expected to accelerate after Congress approved a package last month to boost the semiconductor industry and research in an effort to create more high-tech jobs in the United States and help it better compete with international rivals. It includes more than $52 billion in grants and other incentives for the semiconductor industry, as well as a 25 percent tax credit for those companies that invest in U.S. chip factories

For a central Ohio project, all 7,000 workers are not needed immediately. They’re also just a fraction of what will be needed as Intel’s project transforms hundreds of mostly rural acres about 30 minutes east of Columbus.

Just six months after Intel unveiled the Ohio operation, for example, Missouri-based VanTrust Real Estate announced it was building a 500-acre (200-hectare) business park next door to house Intel’s suppliers. The site’s 5 million square feet (464,515 square meters) is equivalent to nearly nine football fields. Other projects for additional suppliers are pending.

California-based Intel will rely on lessons learned from building previous semiconductor sites nationally and globally to ensure sufficient construction workers, the company said in a statement.

“One of Intel’s primary reasons for choosing Ohio is access to the region’s stable workforce,” the company said. “It will not be without its challenges, but we are confident that there is enough demand for these jobs to be filled.”

Labor leaders and state officials acknowledge there is currently no reserve of 7,000 additional workers in central Ohio, where other ongoing projects include a 28-story Hilton near downtown Columbus, a $2 billion addition to the Ohio State University Medical Center and Amgen for a $365 million biomanufacturing plant not far from the Intel plant.

And that’s not counting at least three new Google and Amazon data centers, plans for a new $200 million municipal court south of downtown Columbus and solar array projects that could require nearly 6,000 construction jobs alone myself.

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Federal figures show about 45,000 residential and commercial construction workers in central Ohio. This number increased by 1,800 from May 2021 to May 2022, implying a future shortfall given current and future requirements.

“I don’t know of any commercial construction company that isn’t hiring,” said Mary Tebo, executive director of the Builders Exchange of Central Ohio, a construction industry trade association.

The imbalance is offset by training programs, a drive to encourage more high school students to enter the trades, and clean economics. Including overtime, pay for skilled tradespeople can reach $125,000 a year, said Dorsey Hager, executive secretary-treasurer of the Columbus Building Trades Council.

Or as Lt. Gov. John Husted, the state’s economic development chief, says, the Intel project is so big and lucrative that it will create opportunities for people who didn’t see construction jobs in their futures.

“When you’re willing to pay people more to do something, you’re going to find the talent,” he said.

In addition to the new and out-of-state workers, some are likely to be pulled from the homebuilding industry, thinning an already shortage of homebuilders, said Ed Brady, CEO of the Washington-based Homebuilders Institute.

This creates a housing shortage a risk that could slow the very type of economic development Intel is sparking, said Ed Dietz of the National Association of Home Builders.

“How do you attract that business investment if you can’t also provide additional housing for a growing workforce?” he said.

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Central Ohio is expected to reach 3 million residents by 2050, a pace that will require 11,000 to 14,000 housing units annually. That was before the Intel announcement, said Jennifer Knoll, associate director of community development for the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission. Meanwhile, the region came closest to meeting that goal in 2020 with 11,000 units.

“We know we have work to do as a region,” Noll said.

Shortage or not, work is underway at and near the Intel site, where parades of trucks rumbled down country roads on a recent August morning as the beeps of scores of construction vehicles echoed in the distance.

It was just another day for pipe fitter Taylor Purdy, who made his regular 30-minute drive from Bangs, Ohio, to his construction job helping widen a road that runs past an Intel plant.

Purdy, 28, spends his days in the trenches helping to position storm and sanitary sewer and water lines. Extra work abounds as deadlines approach. Intel’s construction work is in its earliest phases as construction machinery reshapes 1,000 acres (400 hectares) of former agricultural and residential land being transformed into an industrial site.

Purdy said he likes the job security of being involved in such a large project. He’s also noticed that unlike other jobs he’s worked, he doesn’t have to explain to people what he’s up to.

“Everybody knows what I’m talking about,” he said.

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