NEW BEDFORD — On a hot July afternoon, political leaders from the South Coast to Washington, D.C., convened under a big white tent at the New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal.

Union members from various trades joined them, donning their hardhats and neon yellow T-shirts. Some were scattered in the suited and plain-clothed audience, while a select few sat next to a small stage of officials. Politicians and agency leaders took turns standing before them at the podium to herald the arrival of a job-building industry: offshore wind.

Officials then and since have spoken of the good-paying union jobs that’ll be coming to the state. But with some work months to a year away, certain workers are finding themselves in a kind of occupational uncertainty — waiting in anticipation and investing time for a job they don’t know they’ll get for the promise of reliable work in the years to come.

At the terminal this summer ― the future construction staging site for the nation’s first commercial-scale offshore wind farm ― Vineyard Wind CEO Lars T. Pedersen and Southeastern Massachusetts Building Trades Council President David Araujo signed a “historic” project labor agreement to a resounding applause. It guarantees at least 500 union jobs for the project’s construction and installation, according to the signatories.

Southeastern Massachusetts Building Trades Council President David Araujo, left, and Vineyard Wind CEO Lars T. Pederson, right, at the Marine Commerce Terminal in New Bedford in July 2021. They are surrounded by officials, including Mayor Jon Mitchell, U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, Massachusetts EEA Secretary Kathleen Theoharides, White House National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy.

Wanting to be among those 500, select tradespeople have committed time to train for one of the future offshore jobs with the hope (but no guarantee) that they’ll be tapped to participate, some starting so long ago that they’ll need to get recertified. They’re ready and waiting, but amid project delays and limited positions for some trades, they say they’re not relying on the job. One of those workers is Joey Welch.

Training for a chance to work offshore

In December of 2019, when the Vineyard Wind project was stuck behind federal delays under the Trump administration, apprentice pile driver Welch hopped into his Toyota Camry to make the late afternoon commute from Somerville (his job site at the time) to Mass Maritime Academy in Buzzards Bay. Through his union, he was enrolled in a training course for the offshore wind industry that would also count toward his mandatory apprenticeship hours.

The course is certified by the Global Wind Organization (GWO) and consists of five modules, including working at heights, fire awareness and sea survival. It’s designed to prepare people for offshore work, though other major components of construction will occur in the Port of New Bedford and on shore.

“The GWO basic safety training is going to be required of just about anybody who sets foot on an offshore wind turbine in any form,” said Capt. Michael Burns, executive director of the academy’s Maritime Center for Responsible Energy. Most course participants he’s seen are from the trades and predominantly pile drivers and ironworkers.

Welch, 32, is a member of Boston-based Pile Drivers and Divers Local 56, which is part of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America and, by extension, the Massachusetts Building Trades Council. Local 56 was awarded a $100,000 wind workforce training grant from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center in 2019 to sponsor members for GWO training. The funding allowed for about 60 of the more than 300 pile driver members to receive their certification by November of 2021. 

Welch, a New Bedford native, is used to being on the water as a former scallop fisherman and fisheries observer. Still, the class introduced unfamiliar high-risk situations: rescuing a fellow worker dangling unconsciously from a ladder, transferring from a moving vessel to a stationary turbine foundation, and finding one’s harness in a smoke-filled room where you can’t see your hand in front of your face. 

“People were like, ‘I wanna get in on the next one,’ because this is going to be a big opportunity once it goes through, so you wanna be right at the top of the list if you can be,” said Welch of the training.

Alexis Semple, a 24 year old from Wareham and living in New Bedford, was one of the few female pile drivers to participate in the wind safety training. She was in the second cohort of Local 56 pile drivers and received training just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. 

She heard about the training opportunity during a union meeting; when it ended, she walked up to union e-board members to tell them she wanted in. 

“I liked the little bit of adrenaline rush,” Semple said of the training. “I like being active and doing these different things and that little bit of danger makes it a little fun.”

Vineyard Wind expects work to begin in the Port of New Bedford in 2023 to transport the 62, more than 700-foot turbines offshore and plant them in the seafloor. It’ll take a lot of heavy machinery, powerful vessels and many expert hands. Welch and Semple hope to offer their skills, but acknowledge their participation is not guaranteed. 

“In a perfect world it would start next month and it would go for the next 20 years of my life,” said Welch. “You can’t put all your eggs in that basket. Hopefully it will be a secure job but I’m not banking on that. I’m doing other work as well.”

Vineyard Wind construction timeline

  • November 2021: Vineyard Wind breaks ground on the project at the site where the  offshore cables will make landfall in  Barnstable. The cables will travel farther inland to a substation, which is how they will connect and bring power to the  Massachusetts grid. 
  • Second quarter of 2022 to third quarter of 2023: Offshore export cables scheduled to be installed.
  • Second to Third quarter of 2023: Installation of the turbine foundations (including the monopiles); installation of the electrical service platform.
  • Second quarter of 2023 to Second quarter of 2024: Installation of the wind turbines. 
Source: Vineyard Wind construction plan, updated June 2021 (BOEM.gov)

Hiring goals for locals, women and minorities

Vineyard Wind and its contractors signed the project labor agreement after about three years of negotiations, said Massachusetts Building Trades Council President Frank Callahan. He noted the negotiation period was prolonged when Vineyard Wind switched turbine supplier from MHI Vestas to General Electric, which meant starting over in some respects. 

Callahan said the agreement was a “big improvement” from what it was when they started negotiations, noting the offshore work was originally set to be done mostly by foreign workers. 

“We had to educate each other on how we work,” Callahan said. “They have a bit of a different model in Europe than we do … We’re more craft-specific here in the United States.”

Here, he said, they will have a variety of tradespeople working on the turbines, blades and foundations; in Europe, he said they might have a crew that is specifically trained to work on turbines.

The terms of the agreement will ensure at least 51% of those 500 union workers will be from Bristol, Plymouth, Barnstable, and Dukes counties, said Jennifer Cullen, manager of work force and supply chain development for Vineyard Wind. The Southeastern Massachusetts Building Trades Council is composed of numerous trade unions and thousands of workers throughout the South Coast, Cape Cod and Islands. 

As for women and minorities, the agreement establishes a goal of 10% and 20%, respectively. Callahan said they are hoping to exceed those benchmarks, as they did with recent construction on the Marine Commerce Terminal.

The Light requested a copy of the agreement, which Vineyard Wind and the regional building council did not provide, citing confidentiality between Vineyard Wind, the unions and the project suppliers.

It establishes an accountability officer to facilitate an “Access and Opportunity Committee,” which will have representatives from each contractor or supplier. Cullen said the lead officer will be an internal employee, and that all parties will hold each other accountable to ensure the hiring targets are met.

The union jobs will make up about half of the roughly 1,000 jobs expected for the construction of the project both on and offshore. The other half will be supervisor roles or foreign workers who accompany overseas turbine installation vessels and are experienced with this type of work, Cullen said. 

She estimates there will be more than 100 workers working in the Port of New Bedford, with multiple trades going offshore, including pile drivers and divers, millwrights, electricians, and ironworkers. She said they are still in the process of determining the exact work each trade will take on. 

Callahan said the offshore construction and installation work will make up a much smaller portion of the roughly 500 union jobs compared to those working on shore and in the port.

“I’m not worried about finding that population of workers to do that (offshore work),” he said. “It’s a new field. People are interested in getting the training and the experience so hopefully there will be more projects to follow this.”

The next anticipated project is Mayflower Wind, and Callahan said the trades council is already interested in entering a similar labor agreement with that developer. 

Local workers eager but pragmatic

For some workers, this project ― and the promise of others to follow along the Eastern seaboard ― signify yearslong job stability, the chance to contribute in the fight against climate change, and the opportunity, perhaps, for a bit of adventure on the Atlantic. 

Dave Borrus, business manager for Local 56, said the offshore monopile foundation installation could require 24 to 40 pile drivers over the course of six to eight months, leaving some trained pile drivers out of it. After 15 or 30 days working offshore, the pile drivers would rotate out with a different crew.

He noted, though, that there are still a lot of unknowns and that the figures are just estimates. 

Pile drivers and divers generally work with large machinery to hammer heavy parts, called piles, into the ground to establish foundations or support infrastructure. They have worked offshore before, such as for offshore drilling projects for oil and gas. For the Vineyard Wind project, they will likely head out to sea for 14-day shifts that run seven days per week at 12 hours per day, which Cullen said is the industry standard. 

Also joining them offshore will be millwrights. Andy Benedetto, council representative for the Eastern Millwright Regional Council, described it as work on the stuff that spins. They will support the moving, rigging and placing of the blades and tower components off of vessels and around the site and storage area. They will also work on the nacelle: the head of the turbine that contains the power-generation components.

Benedetto said about 100 of their 700 active members have expressed interest in working on the offshore wind farm. 

Some union workers recognize the line of projects and bids behind the Vineyard Wind project and try to keep up with the news. 

“I’ve heard rumors of windmills going off the entire East Coast all the way down,” said Semple. “It’s going to be a very long project where just the construction of all these projects could last eight to 10 years.”

“Being young and in the industry, I would love to go and just work for two weeks straight, make a bunch of money and then have two weeks to travel or do whatever else I want to do,” she said. “Between the job security, the money, the opportunities, it’s just very appealing.” 

Borrus said there is an additional appeal among some workers of helping to address climate change, which Semple also acknowledged. 

“There is a strong component among them that really want to do their part to stave off this climate change, sea level rise stuff,” Borrus said. “When I talk to members in their 30s and under, this is really front and center in their lives.”

The union rep said his phone rings about every week with trainees asking when the wind job will start, especially after news breaks and headlines reach their inboxes.

“They’ll say, ‘Hey, is it starting yet?’” he said. “They’re very eager to get into it.”

Semple and Welch feel some of that eagerness, but it’s tempered with pragmatism and patience.

“I don’t want to get complacent thinking that I’m gonna go out there. I’m living my life and working jobs that are brought up to me,” Welch said. “This is always in the back of my mind as maybe next winter they’re going to start. The chances have increased, but I still am not going to believe it until I get my first paycheck.”

This December, he will head back to Mass Maritime to get recertified (the GWO training is good for only two years). He noted the training can be hard as it’s tough to miss out on money he would have made on a job. 

About a year before the project labor agreement signing, Welch was on a tiny float in the New Bedford Harbor for a job at the Marine Commerce Terminal. He and other pile drivers worked above water for months to pour cement to build out the terminal’s face for added protection. The work was convenient for him as he hardly had a commute. 

With the terminal to serve as the launchpad for the construction phase of the project in 2023, the appeal goes beyond job security for him. Seated in the Whaler’s Tavern after a day of working in Worcester, Welch spoke of his love for the ocean and the city as he proudly rolled up the sleeves of his henley. On one arm were tattoos of a mermaid and the Kilburn Mill whale; on the other was a tattoo of the two fish of the Pisces astrological sign.

“We’re excited and hopeful…New Bedford is prime real estate for this,” he said. “I’m glad I’m from the area and have the chance to get into it.”

Email Anastasia Lennon at alennon@newbedfordlight.org.

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