Bidding opens on long-stalled NH Jobs Corps plan

CONCORD, N.H. -- The federal government has begun soliciting bids for the construction of a Jobs Corps Center in Manchester, N.H., three years after the project was stalled by contract language that would have required the facility to be built by union labor.

The residential education and job training complex will serve low-income youth ages 16 to 24, with a focus on homeland security, health care and hospitality jobs. Planning for the center began more than a decade ago but it has been in limbo since 2009, when the bidding process was cancelled.

At issue was a "project labor agreement" included in the bid solicitation that would have required construction contractors to negotiate with union officials, recognize union wages and generally abide by collective bargaining agreements. New Hampshire has the smallest unionized construction workforce in New England, and opponents of the requirement said it would favor out-of-state unionized contractors rather than New Hampshire companies that employ in-state workers.

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Labor re-issued its solicitation for bids without the labor agreement. The latest development was announced by Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who pushed the labor department to drop the requirement, and Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who was governor when she first submitted a proposal for the center.

As governor, Shaheen created the state's first economic development plan, and one of its key recommendations was pursuing a Jobs Corps Center. Through the Workforce Opportunity Council, the state submitted a proposal to the labor department in 2001.

Ayotte's involvement was more recent. She raised concerns last year that project labor agreements could drive up construction costs, wrote to the president about it in February and questioned labor officials at a Senate committee hearing in April.

"Federal rules shouldn't force local workers to sit on the sidelines," she said in a statement. "Removing this requirement will help level the playing field for New Hampshire contractors who want to bid for the work."

According to the labor department's request for bids, the Jobs Corps complex will include a welcome center, an administrative/wellness building, a student services center, an educational/vocational building, a kitchen and cafeteria, two dormitories and a gymnasium. The cost has been estimated at $35 million.

There are 125 such centers nationwide. New Hampshire and Wyoming are the only two states that don't have them.