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Boston-area projects lift construction workers

Construction activity and employment have jumped since August 2012, and now cranes are a common sight.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

Construction activity and employment have jumped since August 2012, and now cranes are a common sight.

Ray Callaway, a 53-year-old carpenter, built partitions in an office building near Fenway Park a few months ago. When that job ended, he went to work framing metal bars in August for Harvard Business School’s temporary dining hall. And when the Harvard project finishes later this winter, Callaway is confident there’s more work on the horizon.

The local construction industry, after some of the hardest times in decades, is once again booming, experiencing nearly the fastest employment growth in the nation. In August, Greater Boston added more construction jobs than any other US metropolitan area except for the Los Angeles area, ahead of such building meccas as Houston, Atlanta, and Phoenix.

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For construction workers, the burst of commercial, residential, and institutional projects comes none too soon after several years of spotty work and long bouts of unemployment. Callaway, for one, was out of work for more than two years. He exhausted unemployment benefits and survived by taking meager jobs such as fixing back porches when he could find them, and cashing in retirement savings.

“I’m working now, and I have faith that when this done, there’ll be something,” said Callaway, of Somerville. “It’s a job at a time.”

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Ray Callaway is working and confident there are more jobs on the horizon.

Construction was the hardest hit industry in the last recession, shedding more than 20 percent of its jobs in Greater Boston, compared with a loss of about 4 percent for all types of jobs in the metro area. After the local construction industry hit bottom in 2010, it recovered at a painfully slow pace over the next two years, regaining fewer than 3,000 of the 15,000 jobs it lost.

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But since August 2012, construction activity and employment have jumped. The Boston metro area added 8,700 construction jobs, compared with 8,900 in Los Angeles and 8,200 in Houston.

Driving this surge are several factors, including the strength of Boston’s technology, biotechnology, and medical industries, pent-up demand for housing, and improved credit conditions that have made financing available for commercial construction.

Projects delayed by the recession, such as the redevelopment of the former Filene’s property in Downtown Crossing, have restarted. New projects, such as a 17-story office for PriceWaterhouseCoopers LLP in the Seaport District, are underway. Universities and hospitals are moving ahead with plans to build dormitories, academic buildings, and other projects.

Boston University, for example, is going forward with a major renovation of 750-student Myles Standish Hall near Kenmore Square. The 1920s-era former hotel is due for an overhaul of its heating, plumbing, and mechanical systems, and a conversion of the hotel-style rooms to traditional dormitory suites, said Gary Nicksa, senior vice president for operations at BU. The school doesn’t have a cost estimate yet.

“We’re beginning the planning process again, knowing we have more confidence in the economy,” Nicksa said.

James Stearns, the owner of a Pembroke steel firm, James F. Stearns Co., said corporations and institutions are already seeking price estimates for projects that would break ground in four or five years. For much of the past few years, Stearns said, his company has chased work out of state, but now is working on pharmaceutical giant Novartis AG’s expansion in Cambridge.

His company’s workforce has doubled in the past year to about 160 workers, Stearns said. “It’s very promising.”

Shawmut Design and Construction, based in Boston, has hired 200 people this year, bringing its staff to 800, said Tom Goemaat, the company’s chief executive officer. Shawmut is starting on the renovation of the 428-room Boston Sheraton in the Back Bay and The Boston Conservatory’s new three-story building near Fenway Park.

In other parts of the country, “there’s not the vibrancy,” that he’s experiencing in Boston, said Goemaat.

The signs of this vibrancy are on the ground and far above it. Empty lots around Boston are fenced with signs announcing new projects. Construction detours abound throughout the city. Cranes dot the skyline.

“Once you see the cranes, it’s a happy feeling,” said Denise Kelley, a Boston concrete worker. “You see that and you know there’s work.”

Kelley, 56, had so little work during the first three years of the financial crisis that she fell behind on mortgage payments and almost lost her house. But in the past 18 months, Kelley worked on a culvert in the Seaport District, dormitories at Northeastern University, and an apartment project in Cambridge.

When the Cambridge job ended three weeks ago, she was confident she would find something else. She was right. On Monday, she began concrete work for a 29-story apartment building on Stuart Street in Boston.

Mike Monahan, the business manager of the Local 103 chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said 1,000 of the union’s local workers who were unemployed have gone back to work in the past year and a half.

Despite the gains of the past year, however, the industry still has far to go to recover all the jobs lost in the recession. In the Boston area, there were still nearly 3,500 fewer jobs in August than in August 2005. Mark Erlich, the executive secretary of the New England Regional Council of Carpenters, conceded that the region might never reach that employment level again, which was driven in large part by the $24.3 billion Central Artery project, completed in 2007. “It’s great to see the recovery,” Erlich said. “It’s not the Big Dig.”

Callaway, the Somerville carpenter, said he’s glad to be working regularly again. Earlier this year, when his 24-year-old son wasn’t sure about a career, Callaway encouraged him to get into carpentry. It’s an outdoor job that pays well and allows you to travel, and meet new people every few months, Callaway said.

“It’s one of the last solid working-class jobs,” he said.

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.
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