City’s construction jobs see little growth

With the University’s ongoing campus renovation and a growth in building for city schools, construction in the Elm City seems to be booming. But the numbers don’t agree.

University and city officials said New Haven’s construction industry is now employing more people than it has in the last 15 years, but according to federal government figures, the city’s construction workforce has remained roughly the same size since the early 1990s. New Haven stands out in comparison to a statewide trend of steep job growth in the construction industry during the same period.

In addition to the construction and renovation projects taking place all over Yale’s campus, the city has committed to building 15 new public schools, beginning in 1999.

Joe Slepsky, a research analyst with the Connecticut Department of Labor, said he is not surprised by the figures and thinks the city’s construction sector has lagged behind the state’s because New Haven has not undertaken a major government-driven construction project since the early 1990s, when the city built the Connecticut Financial Plaza on Church Street, currently the city’s tallest building. While he said the city has had plans for several large-scale projects — such as a failed $500 million plan to build a 1.2 million-square-foot indoor mall on Long Wharf proposed in 1998 — he said the city has, for the most part, failed to put any plans into action.

“There was always something they were going to do [to revitalize the downtown area] but unfortunately they really have not done anything since the early part of the nineties,” Slepsky said. “If the Gateway Project ever comes through, then you will see employment shooting back up.”

Slepsky said Connecticut construction job numbers have risen sharply because the public works sector is a driving force statewide. He said though the city has carried out a number of smaller scale projects, such as the IKEA store on Long Wharf and the Broadway and Chapel District revitalization projects, New Haven government has been too indecisive in past decades to put plans for major construction projects into action.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, New Haven’s construction job numbers shrank 3.5 percent and fluctuated between a low of 8,200 jobs in the first quarter of 1996 to a high of 12,300 in the third quarter of 2004. In contrast, Connecticut’s construction workforce grew 48 percent since 1992 from 47,700 workers to 66,100 workers in 2005.

New Haven Deputy Director of Economic Development Tony Bialecki said he is unfamiliar with the U.S. Department of Labor’s figures but finds it very hard to believe that construction has not picked up in New Haven — especially with the recent surge in construction projects from Yale and Yale-New Haven Hospital and the city’s $1 billion public school construction program.

“The Yale construction and hospital construction has been fairly substantial in the last couple of years,” he said. “In the last five years, I would have to say that the number of construction jobs is definitely up in New Haven.”

Associate Vice President of the Office of New Haven and State Affairs Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93 also said he did not think the Department of Labor numbers could possibly be true, as both University and city construction projects have been especially robust in the last decade.

Ben Cozzi, president of the Connecticut Building and Construction Trade Council, said the construction industry is experiencing an extended period of growth both in New Haven and statewide, but that demand is cyclical and there are times — such as during the economic recession of the 1970s — when there is little construction work. But Cozzi said he is not afraid of an eventual decline in construction projects in New Haven because there will always be building projects around the state that require licensed tradesmen. Provided workers are willing to work on projects in different parts of the state, he said, he thinks they will not need to change industries.

”Some people will travel to other parts of the country, but usually what happens is the work travels around the state: There might not be anything in New Haven, but something in Stamford,” Cozzi said. “For years, there was no work at all in New Haven, and still it is often the case that there are people from New Haven working in Stamford.”

John Ferro, a laborer on Yale’s Cross Campus Library renovation project and single father who has worked in construction for 22 years, said the seasonal nature of construction work makes it a struggle to earn enough to live comfortably.

But Eddie Negretti, who also works on the CCL project, said he thinks there is a constant cycle around New Haven and the Yale campus that will provide employment for workers like him.

”Work will never slow down because once Yale has finished all its projects, [the University] will need to renovate everything again,” he said. “It all goes in cycles.”

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