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Even more construction workers are needed for Rochester's building boom

Work on East main Street in downtown Rochester was to be completed in Spring 2022. But private utility work as well as supply chain issues and labor shortages have delayed completion until late summer, according to the city.
Brian Sharp
Work on East Main Street in downtown Rochester was to be completed this spring. But private utility work as well as supply chain issues and labor shortages have delayed completion until late summer, according to the city.

The number of people working construction in the Rochester area is at its highest level on record, state labor officials say.

Job growth in the trades is twice that of private-sector employment overall.

“Certainly, we've seen slowdown on some projects or delays on projects because of materials, but not on the labor side,” said Joe Morelle Jr., executive director of UniCon. “But how long will that last?

"There's so much work coming.”

The group represents the construction industry and trades in the nine-county Finger Lakes region.

Already there are cracks.

Utility work, supply chain issues and a shortage of workers are all cited by the city as reasons why the East Main Street reconstruction project is taking longer than planned. The roadwork was to have been completed this spring. Now the city says it will be done sometime late summer.

And when Morelle talks about what’s coming, he means a barrage of government projects. Flush with federal rescue plan and infrastructure money, municipalities are pushing a multitude of projects forward.

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Monroe County is eying improvements at Frontier Field, an expansion of Seneca Park Zoo and a possible new Children’s Detention Center in Rush. The city wants to add space to its downtown Convention Center.

Then there is all the private development, including a new manufacturing hub in Greece being built by a Canadian firm called Li-Cycle.

Construction employment in the Rochester metro increased over the year from 20,300 to 21,800, an increase of 1,500, or 7.4%.

That compares to 3.4% for the private sector, said Tammy Marino, a Rochester-based labor market analyst with the New York state Department of Labor.

“Looking forward ... there remains a fair amount of uncertainty,” Marino said in an email response to questions.

Construction employment is projected to slow somewhat in the next decade and trail private-sector job growth overall. That would be in addition to jobs being created by turnover.

Marino said about 90% of all hiring in the region results from the need to replace workers, both those who transfer to other occupations or exit the workforce.

All this has Morelle on tour, visiting area high schools. He made three such stops last week alone.

“We're trying to encourage more and more kids coming out of high school ... to get into the unions, because, you know, there's such a need,” he said.

Union halls are at full employment, even pulling in retirees. Some open shops are raising wages and putting together benefits packages, all to draw in recruits.

“There's not ... an organized union trade that is paying probably less than $40 an hour,” he said. That is for a journeyman, having completed a two- or three-year apprenticeship.

He added that UniCon can help people needing to fill out their resume or clear up any obstacles.

Brian Sharp is WXXI's investigations and enterprise editor. He also reports on business and development in the area. He has been covering Rochester since 2005. His journalism career spans nearly three decades.