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April 21, 2014

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DAILY MEMO: JOBS:

Construction industry drying up, and not just in the desert

Jobs in Canada gave hope to local workers, but those are vanishing, too

Just weeks ago, Harry Tostowaryk was in Las Vegas from Edmonton, recruiting ironworkers to apply for visas to work in the upper reaches of Canada.

Tostowaryk hoped to reel in workers whose jobs were drying up here — the $9.2 billion CityCenter, for example, was shedding ironworkers as the heavy framework there was finishing up, and work on the $5.2 billion Echelon had been halted indefinitely.

Canadian oil construction seemed a relative bright spot as Tostowaryk made his pitch.

He told workers that living in remote camps hundreds of miles from Edmonton is, to put it nicely, the opposite of claustrophobic. But there is satellite TV.

Don’t forget your long johns.

Alberta had about $126 billion in projects planned, according to reports. Even the highest Strip estimates never approached that number.

But now the hope of finding work is fading, even in Alberta.

In the weeks after Tostowaryk visited Las Vegas, at least $40 billion in construction that was to start in Alberta was canceled or delayed, said Gil McGowan, Alberta Federation of Labor president. That’s because the price of oil plunged sharply, making the prospect of expensive construction for an expensive oil extraction method a lot less attractive.

“Alberta is not an island,” McGowan said. “It’s not going to be spared. The fallout of the current economic crisis is sweeping the globe.”

McGowan said he’s heard reports that some companies in Alberta are shipping planeloads of workers back to their home countries.

In Nevada, the drop in construction employment has been acute, with a loss of 15,000 jobs, down 11 percent from last year.

Nationally, construction suffered more job losses than any other industry. In the past year, the construction industry decreased by 568,000 jobs — nearly a third of all jobs lost nationwide. In November, 82,000 construction jobs evaporated.

Very few places in the country are adding workers. Those that are tend to be centered on oil and gas construction, largely in Texas and Oklahoma, as well as on military construction. Jobs have also been added in Louisiana as a result of post-hurricane construction.

Overall, in October, construction employment fell in all but six states over the previous year, and in all but seven states compared with the previous month.

Las Vegas has become the end of the road for many workers who are trying to ride out the downturn. They were drawn here by the thousands during the boom. Normally, many would move on to jobs elsewhere when Las Vegas work dried up. But those other jobs don’t exist at the moment.

“You get to Vegas and then now there’s just no place to go because, hey, this isn’t a local issue, this is a national issue,” said Marc Furman, president of the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters.

It’s also an international issue.

In the parking lot outside the Ironworkers union hall last week, grizzled veterans still held out hope for jobs in Canada.

At 65, Charlie, an ironworker who didn’t want to give his last name, needs one more year before he hits retirement. He’s been coming to the hall every morning for two months, but so far hasn’t found anything.

Charlie was planning to apply for a visa to go to Canada and had gone to AAA to map out his driving route. But he’s been procrastinating. And he’s not thrilled to go somewhere so remote — or so cold.

“I’d like my next move to be Rosarito Beach south of Tijuana,” he said. “I want to buy a bar.”

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