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Labor union wants Minnesota workers to fill jobs for area wind farm construction projects

Construction is progressing on a Stoneray Wind Project turbine in Pipestone County. (Tim Middagh / The Globe)

REGIONAL — With several wind farm projects in development in southwest Minnesota and more on the way, it’s an exciting time for area construction workers.

Laborers' International Union of North America (LIUNA) Minnesota has identified 19 wind farm projects in development now or in the near future, including wind farms in Nobles, Jackson, Cottonwood, Rock and Pipestone counties.

Combined, they add up to more than 3,500 megawatts of wind generated power. As contractors typically hire one worker per megawatt, that’s a lot of jobs.

Those in the industry believe the boom is driven by the soon-to-expire federal Renewable Electricity Production Tax Credit, which gives a big boost to wind projects built by 2020.

“It’s this incredible boom time and we feel that there's amazing opportunity to put folks to work and recruit people over the next few years,” said Lucas Franco, research manager for LIUNA Minnesota and North Dakota. “This kind of boom might only come around once and if we miss out on this opportunity, that’s it.”

The union has a two-pronged approach to securing the new jobs for Minnesota workers. For one, it is requesting all new wind projects report on where their workers originate from, as it has witnessed some developers outsource its workers from Texas and other states.

Wind developer Tenaska agreed to such a condition on its Nobles 2 Wind project, which will erect 82 turbines in northern Nobles County in summer 2019. LIUNA is hoping to have the condition placed on every developer in the near future to provide transparency on wind developers’ hiring practices.

“It is difficult to get 100 percent of workers locally or from Minnesota — that’s not viable right now — but hiring 50, 60 percent of workers from the area should not be a challenge,” Franco said.

In order to ensure those workers are available, LIUNA is focused on recruiting new faces into the construction industry.

Gary Larsen, apprenticeship coordinator at LIUNA’s Laborer’s Training Center in Lino Lakes, spoke with hundreds of students during career expos in Worthington and Marshall earlier this week about how they can join the industry.

“At this facility, new workers can get the skills needed to work on these wind projects,” Larsen said. “And if they get tired of doing that, there’s 70 different classes that are all free, so they can be well-rounded and get the skills to work in highway, pipeline, building projects … whatever they like best.”

In a recent U.S. Chamber of Commerce poll of more than 2,700 construction managers, builders and contractors nationwide, 91 percent reported having a difficult or moderately difficult time finding skilled workers.

Southwest Minnesota leaders have expressed frustration about the shortage of skilled laborers, as more young people elect to go to college. With such little supply and so much demand, construction jobs are paying out higher wages and benefits than ever — but the wave of workers has not come.

“We want to let people know that you don’t have to go into student debt and come out of school without a high-paying job and have nothing toward retirement or 401k,” Larsen said. “If you’re a union worker, you start out first hour of the job with benefits and money toward your pension, and with wages that can support a family.”

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