KENNEWICK – Mondays, at 1:30 a.m., Ty Cheromiah leaves his home east of Sandpoint and drives 3 1/2 hours to his job here at Lampson International LLC. The Local 14 ironworker sleeps where he can during a five- or six-day week of 10-hour shifts, returning to Idaho for weekends.
Cheromiah, who has commuted to the Tri-Cities before, has been told he will have work for another two years.
At Lampson, he and 274 other employees are cutting, welding and assembling two cranes: one bound for China, the other for Japan. When completed, they will be the largest the company has built – more than 400 feet tall, and capable of lifting 2,600 tons and 3,000 tons.
The buyers – Hitachi Transport Systems/Hitachi America LTD and China Nuclear Energy Industry Corp. – will use them to help erect new nuclear power plants. It’s the kind of work that helped Lampson grow from a hauler of fruit and machinery in the late 1940s to one of the largest makers, leasers and operators of cranes in the world.
And it’s work that has helped make the Tri-Cities the fastest-growing employment center in the United States, according to a recent survey by the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University.
Employers added 4,400 workers from February 2009 to February 2010, a 4.8 percent increase, according to the ASU study. The Washington Employment Security Department says the job gain was more modest for Benton and Franklin counties – about 3,000, still significantly better than any other area of the state.
The nuclear industry remains an economic mainstay, employing thousands directly and indirectly. Construction of a vitrification plant for stabilizing nuclear waste by itself generates a $1 billion payroll, said Dan Schau, the state Employment Security Department labor economist for the area.
But the 3,200 employed at the project on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation are only part of the story, he said.
From construction to specialty metals fabrication to health care to food processing, companies are hiring, Schau said.
In the last nine years, employment in Franklin County has climbed 43 percent, he said, and in Benton County 18 percent, compared with 13 percent for all of Washington.
Schau said employers have so far not complained of a labor shortage – an influx of job seekers has increased the unemployment rate. But with a growing share of the work force aged 55 or older, some skills could be scarce within a few years, he said.
Although the explosive growth of the Columbia Basin winemaking industry has received a lot of publicity, Schau said, processors of more commonplace agricultural commodities like carrots, potatoes and onions have restructured their operations to make them more efficient, at the same time minimizing employment ups and downs.
The recent closure by Lamb-Weston of a potato-processing plant in Prosser was widely publicized, for example, but that was the least efficient of four plants the company has in the area, and the company remains a major employer, he said.
Carl Adrian is the president and chief executive officer of TRIDEC, the Tri-City Development Council.
Although some of the recent growth was spurred by the disproportionate share of the federal stimulus money captured by area projects, he said, “The economy was clicking along pretty strongly before that.”
Adrian said the Tri-Cities population has climbed more than 10 percent to 242,000 in the last five years. The area is a low-cost alternative to living on the West Side, he said, and its location makes it a good hub for distribution to Boise, Spokane, Seattle and Portland.
The newcomers are driving a construction boom.
More than 500 building permits were issued during the first quarter of 2010 – double the number for the last quarter of 2009 and triple the activity of a year ago.
Health care services have also been in greater demand.
Kadlec Medical Center added 400 positions in 2009 alone, taking the total work force to more than 2,000 and building the payroll to $147.5 million. Another 85 positions have been added so far this year, and 38 positions are open.
Spokesman Jim Hall said the top two floors of a six-story pavilion completed in June 2008 were left unfinished for future expansion. By June, both floors will be finished and in use, he said.
The Washington State University-Richland campus is the fastest-growing in the state, up more than 40 percent in four years. With a freshman class that’s 26 percent Hispanic, it is also among the most diverse.
Adrian said WSU graduates augment the area’s already high number of educated workers toiling at Hanford and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
The abundance of engineering talent attracted GCL Solar, a Chinese maker of solar panels, which is establishing a research and development center in Richland, he said. The company will hire 40 to 50 engineers.
GCL and Lampson are but two examples of the area’s rising profile as an international trade center, he said.
Paris-based Areva has assembled nuclear fuel rods in Richland for decades and announced last fall it would add 50 jobs at its facility.
TiLite, founded 12 years ago by David Lippes, sells its titanium wheelchairs in 33 countries. With sales increasing 22 percent to 30 percent per year, Lippes said, his goal is to double sales within five years.
TiLite has outgrown the Port of Kennewick business incubator and soon will move into a 30,000-square-foot building of its own. The company employs 140.
Adrian said direct flights from the Tri-Cities Regional Airport to San Francisco make international connections easy. United Airlines will add a connection to Chicago in June.
Lampson President Bill Lampson said abundant land, a rust-inhibiting dry climate and skilled, dedicated workers have allowed his “small-town” company to become a global leader.
From the company’s headquarters on the Kennewick side of the Columbia River, Lampson can see downstream to the huge assembly shop in Pasco. A second fabrication shop is a short walk from his office.
“This is a tremendous place for us to have our business,” he said.