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News / Business / Clark County Business

I-5 Bridge replacement will require strong labor pool in Clark County

Region’s upcoming construction projects bring numerous job opportunities, diverse workforce

By William Seekamp, Columbian staff writer
Published: May 28, 2023, 6:05am
4 Photos
Clark College student Hallie Tibbit, right, welds a bar to the bottom of a metal boat as River Fortier, center, watches during an Advanced TIG (tungsten inert gas) welding class at Clark College. The boat, the students' final project, will be put to the test at Lacamas Lake in less than three weeks, a rite of passage for those graduating from the program, a symbolic send-off to their next adventure.
Clark College student Hallie Tibbit, right, welds a bar to the bottom of a metal boat as River Fortier, center, watches during an Advanced TIG (tungsten inert gas) welding class at Clark College. The boat, the students' final project, will be put to the test at Lacamas Lake in less than three weeks, a rite of passage for those graduating from the program, a symbolic send-off to their next adventure. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

A light blue glow flickered across DJ Johnson’s face, contrasting with his reddish-brown goatee as he examined what was shaping up as an aluminum dinghy.

Just weeks ago, the boat was mostly one large sheet of aluminum.

“Everyone was looking at it like ‘That’s going to be a boat one day?’” said Johnson, a student in Clark College’s welding program.

In less than three weeks, their work will be put to the test at Lacamas Lake — a rite of passage for those graduating from the program, a symbolic send-off to their next adventure.

As for employment prospects, there are plenty of jobs available for the graduates looking to go into the construction field.

37.44 million

Number of person-hours of work it will take to complete the bridge replacement project, according to the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program.

Over the next seven years, the Portland metro region is expected to add about 13,200 jobs in the construction sector, a growth rate of 17 percent — faster than the general economy at 9 percent — according to a 2022 report by three regional workforce development groups.

This is in part due to the large construction projects planned in the region, including the Burnside Bridge retrofit, Multnomah County Library bond and, perhaps most notably, the Interstate 5 Bridge replacement.

“There are tons of job opportunities,” Johnson said. “But they’re not all good jobs.” Some of the jobs pay too little to start, explained the Clark College welding student.

For those in construction, though, the I-5 bridge project will drive employment over the coming years.

It will take 37.44 million person-hours of work to complete the bridge replacement project, according to an analysis done by the replacement program. That works out 18,000 full-time-equivalent jobs, though the actual number of workers will be higher as crews rotate in and out of the project during construction.

Of course, construction will take over a decade to complete; the program will work from the middle out, starting with the bridge and moving outwards, removing the current I-5 Bridge and on to interchange improvements, said Greg Johnson, the replacement program administrator.

“We’re going to be looking to bring in a wide, diverse swath of folks,” Greg Johnson said. “Whether they want to be laborers, operators, or whether they want to be technical — they want to go to engineering school — they can have a place to land and work on this project.”

Outreach

Although there will be work, that doesn’t necessarily mean there will be enough qualified people to do it. In order to combat this, outreach with potential workers and trade and workforce is critical.

“We need to make sure they are aware of the program’s timing, so they can get their members up and ready and identify what programs we need to have in place to help support their participation in the program,” Johnson said.

One example, Johnson said, is offering back office support to firms that don’t have experience working on a federal aid project.

In addition to advisory groups that include members from local workforce groups and trade associations, program officials are connecting with people in middle and high school and presenting working in the trades as a viable career path.

In construction, 87 percent of workers are white and 89 are men, according to a 2022 report from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Oregon and Washington, 80 percent of construction workers are white and 94 percent are men, according to the workforce report.

Community benefits

Essential to meeting Johnson’s goals is a community benefits agreement, a contract between all the parties that lays out expectations about the benefits and consequences of the construction.

Requiring that a percentage of revenue is earned by minority-owned businesses is an example of what the agreement could include, said Miriam Halliday, the CEO of Workforce Southwest Washington and a member of the equity advisory group.

The general minimum amount of minority and women-owned businesses to receive contracts is 22 percent, Halliday said.

“In the old days, the DOTs would build it and say, ‘Well guess what, your benefit is that you can use it,’” Johnson said, “That’s not an acceptable answer in today’s society.”

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A community benefits agreement is not only a tool to ensure access, but can also minimize harms.

Take dust control during the project’s construction, for example. Construction will be noisy, dust will be flying; if someone opens a window to get a breeze, they might be greeted by a cloud of dust instead.

“We want to make sure that we are addressing those contingent issues that could happen and making sure that people can once again live their lives in a semi-normal way for the 10 years of construction that’s going to happen,” he added.

Formal community benefits discussions will begin this summer.

Meanwhile, back at Clark College, welding student DJ Johnson is taking it one step at a time; the boat has to float before he plans to start job hunting. He intends to take the summer off and complete projects around his house.

IF YOU GO

What: The Columbian’s 37th Annual Economic Forecast Breakfast, presented by Riverview Bank, about the Interstate Bridge Replacement Program  and its significant impact on the local and regional economy.

When: 7 to 9:30 a.m. Thursday.

Where: Hilton Vancouver Washington, 301 W. Sixth St., Vancouver.

On the web: www.columbian.com/economic-forecast

Cost: $70

Register: columbian.ticketbud.com/2023-economic-forecast-breakfast

Nearly every quarter students in the welding program take a field trip to a business in the region. It’s a way to highlight the variety of post-grad options, Johnson said. Seeing the options up close has been helpful for him.

“You see all these different places and you’re like, ‘Oh, I could do that. That’d be interesting.’ But then you go to another place and you’re like ‘That looks interesting, too. Maybe I could do this,’” he said. “They all have interesting aspects of them.”

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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Columbian staff writer