Yesy Carbajal has been busy.
A former waitress turned union construction worker, Carbajal has been working six days a week — 50 to 55 hours — helping build a massive concrete foundation at the new Wynn Boston Harbor casino in Everett. That’s almost done, and she’s aiming to roll on to another piece of the vast project, then another, until the whole thing is done in 2019. That would be three years of steady work in a business that can be famously feast-or-famine.
“I hope I’m here the whole time,” she said. “This is a good job.”
And these are good times to be a construction worker in Greater Boston.
Employment is at a 26-year-high. Average incomes have climbed steadily, and faster than inflation, since 2010. Projects valued at $26 billion have launched since 2014, with billions more planned.
And now the single biggest private-sector development Greater Boston has ever seen, Wynn’s $2.1 billion casino, is underway, providing more than a year’s worth of work, on average, for 4,000 construction workers over the next three years.
It’s a surge that has some developers worrying the labor market could overheat, with too few skilled workers and subcontractors to handle it all. They are concerned not so much about now, but a year or two down the road, when the casino job is in full swing and other big projects start hiring.
Yet the region’s biggest construction firms, and the unions whose members they employ, say they’re confident there will be enough workers to go around. It just might take a little juggling.
“Everybody is looking at this issue,” said Les Hiscoe, president of Shawmut Design & Construction. “There’s kind of a war for talent going on.”
That has been the case for several years, as building has ramped up in the Boston area. Workers who endured lean times during the recession have seen their hours expand. Subcontractors, who are typically hired by general contractors for pieces of a large project — electrical work, for instance, or steel framing — have had their pick of lucrative jobs.
Then came the casino.
The project got started in earnest this summer, with plans to put a 27-floor hotel, a 13-acre gaming and entertainment complex, and a 3,000-car underground garage on the site of an old chemical plant along the Mystic River. There’s a power plant to build, new parks to landscape, and a riverwalk and boat docks to lay out across 33 acres. Construction alone is expected to cost $1.2 billion.
“This is going to be a very busy place,” said Chris Gordon, Wynn’s president of design and development.
Those workers will come in waves. There were about 300 on-site last week, running sky-high pile-drivers that were installing foundation walls 100 feet deep into the dirt, and driving backhoes that were starting to dig out dirt to make way for the garage. At its peak in early 2018, there’ll be 2,500 workers on site.
That’s a not-so-small army of carpenters and electricians, plumbers and laborers. And, like most big projects in the Boston area, they’ll all be union. But Wynn and its general contractor — Suffolk Construction — say they think they will have little trouble finding labor.
For one thing, they say, they’re taking care of their workers, with helpful extras like free parking. They also plan to contract with restaurants in Everett to bring in breakfast and lunch, a step up from the typical foodwagon fare. And, Suffolk CEO John Fish said, the chance to work on an iconic building, with no expense spared on design and materials, is attracting top-quality craftsmen.
“This is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” Fish said. “We are getting the best and the brightest from the building trades. They’ve been exceptional in supplying us with as much manpower as we need.”
The unions note they still have plenty of manpower to give. Despite the building boom, there are workers spending more time than they’d like on the sidelines, a fact of life in an industry where tradesmen often work a few weeks or months on one job, then sit and wait for the next one. A big, long-term project like the casino will mean more opportunities for all, said Rich Pedi, who heads a Carpenters Union local in Medford.
“This will basically clear my bench. It will give people who are out of work a good opportunity,” Pedi said. “ And it will allow me to bring folks into the construction industry who’ve never been in it.”
Indeed, wary that claims of a worker shortage could loosen their hold on big construction projects in Greater Boston, some construction unions have ramped up recruitment, touting their wage and benefit packages to recruit nonunion construction veterans, and training new members looking for a good career that doesn’t require college.
It’s showing some results. Membership in several big trade unions — the Boston locals of plumbers and electricians among them — is at 15-year highs, according to federal data. The New England Regional Council of Carpenters has grown by about 1,000 members in the last two years, many in Greater Boston.
One of those new workers is Sal Baio. He joined Laborers Local 22 about a year ago after working in nonunion construction. He’s had steady work and is at the casino now. Baio’s hoping to finish his 2,000-hour apprenticeship there and build a career with the union.
“This is the best decision I ever made,” he said. “I feel secure.”
Still, between the building boom and organized labor’s grip on big construction projects, something has to give, said David Begelfer, president of NAIOP Massachusetts, a trade group for developers.
He talks to members planning projects that are still a year or two out, looking at a market where the casino is going full-bore while other mega-projects such as the re-do of Government Center Garage and NorthPoint in Cambridge are getting underway. They’re not sure, Begelfer said, where they will find workers or how they will sign the relative handful of subcontractors capable of handling such high-end work, or what that might mean for prices at a time when land costs, too, are surging.
“Even without the casino you were starting to see that pressure,” he said. “Now we may be hitting a wall where rents aren’t going to be able to keep up with development costs. I think it’s very clear that some projects aren’t going to get built.”
Still, many will. There is billions of dollars worth of construction in the pipeline, enough for three or four years at least, said John Moriarty, whose John Moriarty & Associates is one of the region’s biggest general contractors. The trick is planning out the work, and nailing down the budgets, well in advance. Knowing, for instance, when a mega-project like the casino will gobble up electricians, and pacing your own projects accordingly.
“Being busy makes us all a lot smarter,” Moriarty said.
And it’s good for workers like Carbajal at the casino. She joined the union about five years ago and mostly had steady work since, along with good benefits and hours that get her home for her 3-year-old daughter’s bedtime. That wouldn’t be the case if she were still a waitress, she notes. An Everett resident, she benefits from local hiring rules on the casino project and she’d like to stay on all the way through. But even if that doesn’t work out, she said, there are lots of other jobs to be had these days.
“I’m not too worried right now,” Carbajal said. “When I go on the (hiring) list, I go back out really quick. We have a lot of work coming.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the first name of Suffolk Construction CEO John Fish.