Terry Brewer built log homes for seven years before the housing slump put his employer out of business in January.
"I was off work for three months, and that was tough," the 35-year-old Dayton, Tenn., builder said Wednesday. "There was just no work to be found."
But in March, Mr. Brewer landed what sometimes is a seven-day-a-week job at the Volkswagen assembly plant under construction here. He now is among more than 5,000 construction workers employed in the region at some of Tennessee's biggest current building projects.
"I'm glad Volkswagen is here," Mr. Brewer said while putting on his hard hat to go to work for RIMSA Plus at a $15-an-hour job building tables, roller beds and equipment. "It's already brought a lot of jobs to this area."
The number of construction workers at the $1 billion VW plant site is peaking this spring at more than 3,200 -- or at least 1,000 more workers than what Volkswagen plans to employ itself once actual car production begins next spring, Volkswagen Communications Manager Guenther Scherelis said.
At the same time, 50 miles to the northeast, the construction workforce at TVA's Watts Bar Nuclear Plant also is nearing its peak this spring with nearly 2,500 construction workers at the site of the Unit 2 reactor project.
Combined with engineering contractors employed on the nuclear plant project in Knoxville and elsewhere, more than 3,100 workers now are employed on completing the second reactor at Watts Bar as part of TVA's five-year, $2.5 billion completion project.
"We may add a couple hundred more construction workers at the site, but we're near the peak of our workforce on this project," TVA spokesman Ray Golden said.
The work certainly is welcomed in an industry suffering its worst downturn in decades. From a peak reached in 2007, construction employment across Tennessee has dropped by 37,000 jobs, or nearly 27 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
* Volkswagen of America: 3,200 construction workers, $1 billion main assembly plant and paint shop
* Watts Bar Nuclear Plant: 3,100 workers, $2.5 billion Unit 2 nuclear reactor project
* Alstom Power: 300 construction workers, first phase of $280 million plant expansion
MAJOR CHATTANOOGA PROJECTS
In the first three months of 2010, the city of Chattanooga issued 108 commercial building permits for more than $25 million in projects. In the first quarter of 2009, the city issued only 63 commercial building permits for $19.9 million in projects.
* Water treatment plant upgrades on Riverside Drive by Tennessee-American Water Co., $4.4 million
* Interior finish for Riverfront Professionals LLC office on Carter Street, $2.05 million
* Garage addition for Vision Hospitality Group on Chestnut Street, $1.5 million
* Interior renovation of the Hamilton County Courthouse by Hamilton County, $1.5 million
* Applebee's restaurant downtown by Quality Restaurant Concepts, $1.3 million
* Store renovation for CNM Hamilton LP on Gunbarrel Road, $1.17 million
Source: City of Chattanooga Building Inspection Department
Georgia shed 65,000 construction jobs, or nearly 30 percent of its building employment, from 2006 through 2009, bureau figures show.
Economists expect conditions to improve in 2010, although statewide unemployment in construction is projected to stay above 10 percent in both Tennessee and Georgia this year.
"Building permits are no longer declining and should turn up this year across Tennessee," University of Tennessee economist Matt Murray said. "But it's going to take a while to dig out of the very deep hole that we are in."
Foundation for growth
In the Chattanooga area, however, major projects are laying a better foundation for growth. Volkswagen of America and its suppliers, the Tennessee Valley Authority and its contractors, and Alstom Power construction crews collectively are in the midst of nearly $4 billion in projects for new plants.
Those building projects have generated nearly 6,000 temporary construction jobs even before production begins at any of the plants.
"In this economy, every job is critical," said Billy Ray Patton, county executive in Rhea County, where Watts Bar is located. "We're certainly glad to have the work that is now going on at Watts Bar employing a lot of local people and bringing a lot of others to our county."
Mr. Patton said much of the work at the Watts Bar plant, similar to that at the VW facility, is being done by workers who live elsewhere and have come to the region to work in the temporary jobs.
"The economic impact doesn't seem as much as it did when TVA built the first reactor at Watts Bar, and it isn't quite the boost some had thought," he said. "But times are tougher now, and we need these jobs."
Unemployment this winter was 14.3 percent in Rhea County and 14.9 percent in neighboring Meigs County, he noted.
HIRING LOCAL WORKERS
A labor union-backed group known as Volunteers for Local Hire has complained that not enough of the work on the Volkswagen plant is going to local workers after state and local governments pledged nearly $600 million in incentives to land the VW plant.
In a full-page newspaper ad in December, the group claimed that Tennessee politicians were "selling out" the state's workforce by allowing much of the work to go to companies from other states and countries.
VW officials said more than $500 million already has been spent with local and Tennessee firms and most of the nearly 3,000 cars and trucks parked at the VW work site display license plates from Tennessee or Georgia.
Most of the out-of-town contractors hired for the projects still are hiring many local workers, VW and TVA officials said.
And other construction workers coming here from other states still are spending money in local hotels, restaurants and stores, Mr. Patton said.
Jimmy Taylor, a general superintendent for Precision Walls Inc., in Greenville, S.C., brought eight workers with him from the Carolinas this week to start work on the company's contract for the supplier building being erected adjacent to the massive VW assembly plant.
"We worked on the BMW plant in Greenville, and we look forward to being here as well," he said. "I hope to hire 20 or 30 local workers here to do all the work through this summer."