Carpenters Trade Union Bets Big On America's Transition To Renewable Energy

·10 min read

SICKLERVILLE, N.J. — On an overcast day last week, a union carpenter welded steel plates together at the bottom of a man-made lake as interested onlookers gathered around a laptop on a floating barge above to watch a live-feed video of his work. 

For years, the Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters recruited commercial divers from Divers Academy International, a dive school outside Philadelphia. But in February, the union purchased the property as part of a broader effort to get out ahead of what many anticipate — and hope — will soon be a booming offshore wind industry along the East Coast. 

It is the first union-owned and operated commercial dive school in the nation. 

“What do they say, ‘Build it and they will come?’ Well, we bought it, so bring them on,” William Sproule, executive secretary-treasurer of EASRCC, told a room full of union piledrivers, millwrights and carpenters during a tour of the facility.

Donnie Gibbons, a commercial diver and member of Piledrivers and Divers Local 474, enters the water at Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters' newly acquired dive school in Sicklerville, New Jersey. The complex and adjacent lake, a former quarry, is the first union-owned commercial dive school in the nation.  (Photo: Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters)
Donnie Gibbons, a commercial diver and member of Piledrivers and Divers Local 474, enters the water at Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters' newly acquired dive school in Sicklerville, New Jersey. The complex and adjacent lake, a former quarry, is the first union-owned commercial dive school in the nation. (Photo: Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters)

Donnie Gibbons, a commercial diver and member of Piledrivers and Divers Local 474, enters the water at Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters' newly acquired dive school in Sicklerville, New Jersey. The complex and adjacent lake, a former quarry, is the first union-owned commercial dive school in the nation.  (Photo: Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters)

President Joe Biden set a goal of securing 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030, enough to power 10 million homes for a year and cut 78 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. And he and his administration talk often about how deploying clean energy and confronting global climate change is an opportunity to create millions of high-paying union jobs.

Erecting wind farms at sea requires a lot of underwater work, including welding and inspections. As soon as this summer, the union will be able to provide its members with in-house training in underwater welding and other specialized skills required in the construction and maintenance of offshore wind turbines, oil rigs, bridges, dams, nuclear power plants and shipyards.

EASRCC purchased the dive school for $1.9 million after the school’s previous owner landed in legal and financial trouble, and has so far invested another $500,000 in repairing and upgrading equipment at the facility. The school features classrooms, offices, a dock with dive and underwater welding stations and a decompression chamber. The facility is in the process of being certified by the Association of Diving Contractors International.

The carpenter’s union is betting on America’s energy transition and the jobs that are promised to come with it. In late 2020, before investing in its own dive school, it spent approximately $800,000 on a 13-acre lot where it is building out an expanded heavy construction, pile driving and offshore wind training facility. The site is located across the street from the union’s existing training center in Hammonton, New Jersey, approximately 30 miles northwest of Atlantic City. What was recently a forested area of the Pine Barrens is now clear of trees and features mock-up construction sites.

As carpenters, local elected officials, wind industry representatives and members of the public gathered at the facility for a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new training grounds on May 11, apprentices and journeypersons trained on a crane, pile driver and other heavy machinery. A solar array has already gone up in one corner of the property. The union is now working to secure its own wind turbine and GE-manufactured nacelle, which houses the turbine’s gears and other electronics, in order to train millwrights on installation and maintenance.

Sproule called the facility “a dream come true” and expects the return on investment to be huge.

“We’re ready to train the workforce for this industry that is going to be a big part of New Jersey’s economy,” Sproule said. “We’re hoping this will create opportunities for all kinds of young adults that may be interested in getting involved.” 

William Sproule, executive secretary-treasurer of EASRCC, speaks during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the union's new offshore wind training facility in Hammonton, New Jersey. (Photo: Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters)
William Sproule, executive secretary-treasurer of EASRCC, speaks during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the union's new offshore wind training facility in Hammonton, New Jersey. (Photo: Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters)

William Sproule, executive secretary-treasurer of EASRCC, speaks during a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the union's new offshore wind training facility in Hammonton, New Jersey. (Photo: Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters)

Sproule is a first-generation carpenter and 33-year union member. He got his start in the trade in 1989 and spent the final years of his apprenticeship training at the Hammonton facility. The skills he learned during that time allowed him to move up the union ladder, from apprentice to journeyman and eventually agent and organizer. But what he realized during his years laboring in Atlantic City on high-rise buildings and the Atlantic City–Brigantine Connector tunnel was how difficult it is for workers to hone heavy machinery skills in a shop or classroom setting. Those skills largely came with experience in the field.

He wanted training to mimic that. 

“I always had a vision to someday take things outside,” he told HuffPost. “It’s all about hands-on work with cranes and equipment, just like real-world job sites, so our apprentices have more experience before they even hit the job site.” 

EASRCC is one of several councils within the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America, one of the largest building trade unions in North America. The council represents some 41,000 members in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware and the District of Columbia.

The union’s efforts are significant for a trade that has long relied on fossil fuel industry jobs, including pipeline and refinery construction. While there is a lot of excitement about offshore wind within the union, there is trepidation among members in fossil fuel-producing states like Pennsylvania and West Virginia, Sproule said. He said he doesn’t expect renewable energy to take hold overnight but wants workers to be prepared as the sector continues to grow.

“We’re at the beginning of something,” Sproule said. “It’s almost like a revolution. As ratepayers and taxpayers and people that depend on having electricity for our homes, we have to support all forms and methods of creating electricity and transmitting energy, but we want to be a part of this renewable [transition] because we know this is a big part of the future.” 

William Sproule cuts the ribbon during a May 11 open house at the carpenters union's upgraded heavy construction and offshore wind training facility. (Photo: Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters)
William Sproule cuts the ribbon during a May 11 open house at the carpenters union's upgraded heavy construction and offshore wind training facility. (Photo: Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters)

William Sproule cuts the ribbon during a May 11 open house at the carpenters union's upgraded heavy construction and offshore wind training facility. (Photo: Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters)

The U.S. lags far behind Europe on offshore wind production; however, the nascent industry looks poised to take off. EASRCC’s recent investments are aimed at ensuring union carpenters in the Eastern Atlantic and around the country are proficient and competitive when offshore wind developers begin filling jobs. While pile drivers and millwrights will be needed for the installation and maintenance of offshore wind farms, other skilled carpenters will be key for building out transmission lines and other supporting infrastructure on land. 

“We’re always thinking ahead,” said Frank Mahoney, a spokesman for the union. “If we’re not ready, we could easily lose out. The carpenters we train could lose out.” 

The Biden administration has made strides toward its wind energy goals. It granted final approval to two major offshore wind projects: the long-stalled Vineyard Wind project off the coast of Massachusetts, and South Fork Wind project off Rhode Island. It established a new priority wind area in New York Bight, the waters between Long Island and the New Jersey coast, and advanced permitting for the proposed 1,100-megawatt Ocean Wind project off the coast of southern New Jersey. Its first offshore wind lease sale in February brought in a stunning $4.37 billion in high bids —  more than any offshore energy auction in U.S. history, including all oil and gas lease sales — across nearly half a million acres in New York Bight. And the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden championed and Congress passed last year included $65 billion for electricity grid upgrades that will support the emerging offshore wind sector. 

New Jersey itself is angling to become the hub of the U.S. offshore wind sector. Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy set a goal of developing 7.5 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2035, enough to power 3 million homes in the Garden State. In April, EEW American Offshore Structures broke ground on a $250 million monopile manufacturing facility at the Port of Paulsboro, on the Delaware River outside Philadelphia, where union laborers will construct the massive, 2,500-ton steel tubes that will anchor turbines to the seafloor. Work is also underway on the New Jersey Wind Port, where turbine blades and nacelles will be assembled and staged before being transported out to sea. 

All told, offshore wind could generate $150 billion in private investment in New Jersey alone over the next 15 years, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported in April. And job creation has already started. 

“It’s happening. The creation of thousands of jobs is happening in the offshore wind industry, including carpenters, laborers, electricians, engineers and diesel mechanics,” New Jersey Labor Commissioner Rob Asaro-Angelo said at last week’s event in Hammonton. “The increase in job opportunities here [is] going to provide unbelievable opportunities for all of our families in South Jersey and across the country.”

The Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters purchased a commercial dive school, located in a suburban business park outside Philadelphia, in February — part of a broader investment in the emerging offshore wind industry on the East Coast. (Photo: Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters)
The Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters purchased a commercial dive school, located in a suburban business park outside Philadelphia, in February — part of a broader investment in the emerging offshore wind industry on the East Coast. (Photo: Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters)

The Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters purchased a commercial dive school, located in a suburban business park outside Philadelphia, in February — part of a broader investment in the emerging offshore wind industry on the East Coast. (Photo: Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters)

There are major discrepancies in wages for fossil fuel workers versus those in the renewable energy sector, however. A report last year from clean energy think tank Energy Futures Initiative found that the median hourly wages of oil, natural gas and coal workers were $26.59, $30.33 and $28.69, respectively, compared to $24.48 for solar and $25.48 for wind. That wage gap is at least in part due to there being approximately double the number of unionized workers in fossil fuels than in renewables. 

Closing these gaps will be key for renewable energy developers to attract workers. At least two major offshore wind developers, Atlantic Shores Offshore Wind and Ørsted, have signedagreements to use union labor for their planned projects. And Atlantic Power Transmission LLC, a Blackstone company vying to build the transmission lines that connect offshore wind farms to the grid, has partnered with EASRCC and other unions and committed to investing $50 million for workforce development in New Jersey. 

Andy Geissbuehler, the CEO of APT, told HuffPost at EASRCC’s ribbon-cutting ceremony last week that it is critical that states like New Jersey continue to move quickly on workforce training, and for manufacturing facilities and supply chains to be in close proximity to where wind farms are being developed.

“We need to build this industry now,” he said. “If you compare with onshore wind, the U.S. was very late with onshore wind. But you know how it goes. We are very fast, we catch up, and now we are a global leader. The same should happen in offshore wind.”

Angela Woodman, an Army veteran and apprentice piledriver, is among those who stand to benefit from the anticipated boom. She joined the union’s Sisters in the Brotherhood program four years ago after her sister told her about it. Her first week in, she saw a video about dock building and decided that’s what she wanted to do.

Woodman isn’t one to work a desk job. She likes being outside, working with her hands and getting dirty, and her years as a union laborer have been some of the most enjoyable of her life, she said.

She hasn’t closely followed the latest news on offshore wind along the East Coast but is plugged in enough to be excited about both the environmental benefits and the career opportunities it will bring to her home state of New Jersey. A skilled welder, she plans to look into what it would take to use those skills underwater and get certified as a commercial diver.

More than anything, she said, carpenters want stable, long-term work. And the construction of several massive offshore wind farms promises just that. 

“The working-class people got to stay working,” she said.

Language has been amended to clarify the union’s previous relationship with the dive school.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.

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