Staying alive

Staying alive

BY JON BELL

1112 StayingAlive 01
One of the brightest spots in Oregon’s construction industry over the past two years: Intel’s $3 billion D1X fab, which has created thousands of construction jobs. Just as work was winding down on this phase, the company announced plans for a massive second phase similar in scope to the first one and set to kick off in 2013.
// Rendering by Intel

68,800: Construction jobs in Oregon in September 2012
69,600: Construction jobs in Oregon in September 2011
104,800: Construction jobs in Oregon in September 2007

Over the past three and a half years, John Mohlis didn’t receive a single phone call from any company interested in learning about the capacity of Oregon’s construction workforce. As executive secretary of the Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Council, Mohlis had been used to getting such calls during headier economic days when companies considered building here, so the long silence was telling.

But in the past few months, Mohlis’ phone has started ringing again. Not off the hook, but a handful of firms have called about the manpower here should they choose Oregon from their short list of prospective project sites.

“Out of those four or five calls, who knows how many of those projects we might get,” Mohlis says, “but when the phone’s not ringing at all, you don’t get any of them. So that’s encouraging.”

All around the Beaver State, there are subtle signs that the proverbial phones have slowly begun to ring again. Yesterday’s condominium boom has been overshadowed by new apartment projects. Colleges and universities all seem to have student housing and other projects freshly opened or in the works. The massive, $133 million remodel of the Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt federal building and construction of the $160 million Collaborative Life Sciences Building at Oregon Health & Science University have kept some Portland firms humming. And a certain high-tech giant in Hillsboro has by itself boosted the state’s employment numbers with the construction of a single new plant.

Elsewhere, however, the scene still struggles. Mohlis says without the Intel fab in Hillsboro, construction unemployment around Portland would probably be averaging about 25%. A wave of publicly funded projects, approved back when times weren’t so tight, is coming to a close, and once-grandiose plans for destination resorts throughout Central Oregon have been exponentially scaled back.

The result is a construction environment that may be getting back to work, but one that has seen better days.

“The construction industry is pretty much still in a recession,” says Bart Eberwein, executive vice president of Hoffman Construction Co. in Portland. “We are all missing the good old days, but there is work out there that’s keeping us alive.”