Contracts to build tunnel sections for a highway beneath Boston Harbor and to refurbish a Navy dry dock have boosted employment at Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point shipyard to its highest level in nearly four years.
The BethShip yard is hiring welders, shipfitters, pipefitters, crane operators, riggers, machinists and caulkers to fill the orders. Fewer than 100 workers remain on layoff, and they are expected to be recalled in the next several weeks as employment reaches a peak of about 1,200 hourly workers.
The last time employment was so high -- in November 1988 -- the shipyard was building two oceanographic ships and a tunnel for a Virginia highway project.
"Right now, we're actually forced to say no to some kinds of projects," said Robert A. Fiorelli, manager of marketing, sales, planning and technical services at BethShip's Sparrows Point yard.
But long-term stability at the yard remains elusive. Employment is expected to drop to 550 in August as repair projects are completed.
"In the repair business, it's feast one day and famine the next," Mr. Fiorelli said.
Despite the uncertainties, 80 to 100 job applicants come to the yard's employment office each day.
Joseph Anthony of Rosedale was hired recently as a welder's helper after having been without work for two years. With his unemployment benefits exhausted and his savings dwindling, Mr. Anthony said, he was happy to have found a job, even for less pay than he made as a heavy-equipment operator in the construction business.
"I said I'd better figure out something before I go hungry," he said.
Ron Larson took a week off from his welding job in Mauston, Wis., to travel to Baltimore this week to apply for a job at the shipyard, hoping it would provide more security and benefits than his current job.
His brother, who lives in Baltimore, had told him that the yard was looking for welders, and Mr. Larson said he plans to move his wife and two children to Baltimore if he is hired.
He said he knows the repair work at BethShip is temporary but that he hopes he can work his way into the company.
No one expects BethShip to return to the employment levels it once had. At its peak during World War II, the Sparrows Point shipyard employed more than 8,600 workers. Even 10 years ago, the yard employed 3,000 workers, but the federal government ended its shipbuilding subsidies, and the industry nationwide declined rapidly.
Last year, the yard employed an average of 350 workers. Although employment has increased this year, continued labor uncertainties have affected the shipbuilders union.
This spring, the membership of Local 33 of the Industrial Union of Marine & Shipbuilding Workers elected a new slate of officers, replacing the union's president and executive secretary who had overseen the union since the mid-1980s.
William Richardson, an electrician at the shipyard who is the local's new president, said members were dissatisfied with the previous union leadership because of its failure to secure more jobs. Mr. Richardson promised to try to bring back more jobs that are going to non-union workers at subcontractors.
BethShip's strategy for employment stability has been to capture repair projects and to diversify into other fabricating projects such as the tunnel tubes now under construction. The tunnel project alone will provide work for about 425 people through next spring. Work began late last year on the $60 million contract to build tunnel sections for the three-quarter-mile-long highway beneath Boston Harbor.
The other major contract, a $25 million project to refurbish the Navy dry dock, began in April. That work, expected to last until October, has created jobs for 325 people.
John Stocker, president of the Shipbuilders Council of America, a trade group, praised BethShip's ability to win repair contracts and diversify as a "credit to the corporation."
But BethShip is facing increasing competition from other U.S. shipyards that are looking to diversify because of cuts in Navy construction.
"It's very intense," Mr. Fiorelli said. "In recent months, we've been a little disappointed in recent bids."
The company also has been frustrated by events on the national level. Bogged down in Congress is legislation that would forbid subsidized foreign ships from entering U.S. ports unless they have repaid subsidies to their governments.
An expected windfall from laws requiring domestic oil tankers to have double hulls has not materialized because the timetable for compliance stretches into the next decade, and tanker owners are postponing the work.
Mr. Stocker said BethShip and other U.S. shipyards should have a chance to win new construction work later this year when the Department of Defense seeks proposals to build and refurbish ships for the Navy's Military Sealift Command.
"In this business," he said, "it's very difficult to project any stability in the market over the course of the next few months."