International training center for carpenters is expanding

Students are receiving hands-on training at the United Brotherhood of Carpenters’ International Training Center, Tuesday. Jan. 29, 2013.

Construction Training Center

Students are receiving hands-on training at the United Brotherhood of Carpenters' International Training Center, Tuesday. Jan. 29, 2013. Launch slideshow »

A tank for underwater welding. Industrial robots. A pair of 35-ton overhead cranes.

Those are some of the pieces of equipment planned for an upgraded carpenters union training center in Las Vegas.

The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America’s International Training Center, which serves as a training hub for specialty laborers from North America, is undergoing a major overhaul. When the expansion wraps up later this year, the facility near McCarran International Airport will span almost 1 million square feet.

But don’t let the location fool you: The fact that the training center is in Las Vegas doesn’t mean the valley’s construction market is booming again. It is certainly improving, but recovery has been slow.

Once the 222,000-square-foot expansion is done, the training center on Placid Street will get at least 50 new classrooms and meeting rooms, as well as additional space and equipment for hands-on training.

(Incidentally, the laborers themselves aren’t involved in the construction. Las Vegas general contractor Penta Building Group is leading the build.)

Construction started in October and is slated to be completed by mid-September, said Bill Irwin, executive director of the Carpenters International Training Fund, which oversees the soon-to-be 17-acre training campus.

The center serves union members from the United States and Canada — mostly construction supervisors and trainers, although regular laborers also attend.

It opened in 2001 and already has been expanded three times, in 2004, 2006 and 2009. The facility needed to grow as construction techniques, materials and equipment became more sophisticated. Extra space was needed for gear and for the rising number of workers who trained there.

The latest expansion — which Irwin did not rule out as its last — is fueled in part by North America’s booming oil and gas industries. Union members who receive training in Las Vegas include millwrights, who work on power-plant machinery and mining equipment, and carpenters, who build industrial scaffolding for oil sands.

American crude oil production reached a 15-year high last year with an average of 6.4 million barrels a day produced. Natural gas withdrawals were up 21 percent from 2006 to 2011.

Production has skyrocketed in large part because of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in which companies blast water, sand and chemicals thousands of feet underground to break up rock formations to let oil and gas flow more easily though them.

Private-sector domestic commercial construction spending is expected to rise by 10 percent to 15 percent this year, due in large part to energy projects, said Ken Simonson, chief economist for the Associated General Contractors of America. Drilling sites need access roads, water storage ponds, pumping equipment, pipelines and other infrastructure. Those translate into jobs for carpenters union members.

“This is going to be very widespread investment,” Simonson said.

The carpenters union includes almost 500,000 members and has 250 local training centers throughout the United States and Canada. But there’s only one International Training Center — the one in Las Vegas.

In the 1990s when union management was trying to decide where to build the center, they considered at least 15 cities. They picked Las Vegas because of the available land and cheaper airfares here, Irwin said.

Almost everyone who trains at the center flies in. The union training fund pays their way.

The facility, as it exists now, has 45 classrooms and breakout rooms and a 70-person lecture hall. About 100 different classes are taught more than 300 times a year, said Irwin, a former Boston carpenter who oversees curriculum development.

Workers practice building hospital wards, offices, cabinets and highway entrance ramps in the center’s massive warehouse space. They also are trained in tower rescue techniques and how to operate gas and steam turbines.

Between 1,200 and 1,500 people train at the center each month and stay an average of five days. Volume is expected to rise when the expansion is done.

The facility functions like a hotel with 280 dorm rooms, each with a television, a bathroom, Internet access and housekeeping. There is a 24-hour cafeteria, a swimming pool, a fitness center and basketball courts.

But despite its proximity to Las Vegas’ resort corridor, there are no shuttles to the Strip. You can stay at the center only if you’re there for training. There is no tolerance for partying.

Click to enlarge photo

The United Brotherhood of Carpenters' International Training Center, Tuesday. Jan. 29, 2013.

The goal is to make people more employable and keep them working.

“It’s all about having our members getting a full year’s worth of work,” Irwin said.

Perhaps ironically, the training center sits at ground zero of America’s building bust.

Construction employment in Nevada has plunged 66 percent since the peak of the boom days. There were 50,200 construction workers employed in the state in December, down from 146,400 in June 2006.

Nevada saw the largest percentage drop in the country during that period.

Things are starting to get better. Local general contractors began reporting higher revenue last year. At least two said they expect another bump — albeit a small one — in 2013.

Burke Construction Group, for example, brought in $54.2 million in billings during the year ending June 2012, up 6 percent from the previous year. President and CEO Kevin Burke said 2012 was a rebound year. He expects marginal improvement this year.

Government funding for projects is limited, but Burke said he has been getting steady work for senior care and affordable housing projects.

Meanwhile, the Danoski Clutts Building Group collected $13.5 million in billings in the year ending June 2012, up 12 percent from the year before. CEO Shawn Danoski said he expects a slight uptick in revenue this year.

Clients still are hesitant to begin projects, but his company has found ways to adapt. His projects now include 70 percent interior work and 30 percent new construction. Three to four years ago, those were evenly split.

The company also got licensed to work in California and Connecticut. Work there could start as early as March.

Last year was more stable than “the panic” of 2011, Danoski said, but it still is difficult to sign new clients in Las Vegas.

“The new client base is much harder to capture right now,” he said.

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