Baltimore Local 24's leaders, pictured with IBEW members at a recently built data center in Hanover, Md., are working hard to ensure that more of the local's members will be able to find future long-term data center construction jobs in Maryland.

Data center construction and maintenance jobs have become mainstays for thousands of IBEW members across North America over the last several years. In Maryland, Baltimore Local 24 Business Manager Michael McHale is working hard to keep bringing as much of that work as possible into his state.

Cumberland, Md., Local 307 Business Manager Rodney Rice, left, and Baltimore Local 24 Business Manager Michael McHale, right, regularly discuss job prospects for IBEW members with elected officials at all levels of government, such as Rep. David Trone of Maryland, center.

"Every morning, thousands of Maryland residents — many of them IBEW members — travel into Virginia to work in that state's thriving data center industry," McHale said. "Needless to say, these men and women would rather be working closer to home in our state."

Data centers have become a necessity in an era when instant online access to software, documents and media files is critical. Technology companies keep investing in data center growth and redundancy because program access lags or downtime could send their customers to competitors.

"Our highly trained electrical workers are the best qualified to install and maintain the power lines and protection systems data centers need to stay on 24/7, as well as the numerous racks of servers and routers that go inside," said Fourth District International Vice President Gina Cooper, whose jurisdiction includes Maryland. "This kind of work is a perfect fit for the IBEW." (Read more about the union's data center successes in the November 2021 Electrical Worker.)

The Maryland General Assembly has also recognized that data centers could bring thousands of construction and maintenance jobs to the state. In 2020, the body approved a package of employment incentives and tax exemptions to help encourage data center construction and expansion.

"We're all about giving Local 24 members reasons to work closer to home for comparable pay, a better quality of life and more family time," McHale said. "Construction and utility locals across Maryland will benefit from these incentives, too."

McHale's 2,250-member local covers IBEW members in Maryland from the Appalachian Trail to the Atlantic Ocean. In Frederick County, the business manager serves on a data center workgroup that's collaborating with state officials to set guidelines for development and prepare the area for the potentially thousands of jobs that would come with it.

One spot in the county that's been identified by Maryland's Office of Smart Growth as ideal for repurposing as a data center is the 2,100-acre site of the former Alcoa EastAlco Works aluminum processing plant.

"In 1970, our members helped build and maintain that plant," noted McHale, adding that he worked there himself in the 1990s as it was beginning to downsize. "Part of my job was to get stuff off the site," he said. It was shuttered completely in 2010.

Quantum Loophole, which builds data centers for lease to tech companies, bought the EastAlco site in 2021 — but soon encountered a construction concern stemming from the state's rules for diesel-fueled emergency backup generators.

"In Maryland, any generator that can produce over 2 megawatts needs a certificate of public convenience and necessity from the state's Public Service Commission or CPCN exemption," McHale explained, even when the generators would have no connection to the power grid.

One of Quantum Loophole's clients wanted to install 168 generators, which if combined would have been capable of producing about 504 MW of power. When the PSC balked at the plan, agreeing instead to allow just 70 MW of potential generation, the client threatened to walk away from the project.

To help remove such potential roadblocks in future situations, a measure quickly proposed by Maryland Gov. Wes Moore — and still moving through the General Assembly at last report — aims to make it easier for data centers, as well as hospitals and hotels, to install modern backup generators.

"If the bill makes it through, data center jobs will really take off," McHale said. The Maryland Tech Council estimated that data center construction and maintenance at the EastAlco site alone could generate 3,000 construction jobs a year through 2037 — at least 500 of which would be filled by IBEW members, he said — along with nearly 1,700 permanent jobs handling maintenance, upgrades and other advancements.

Getting that and similar worker-friendly legislation passed is why solidifying Local 24's relationships with elected officials at all levels remains a priority, McHale said.

"For too many years, the IBEW let other people decide our fate," he said. "Now we have a seat at the table. … We're working hard to get the Local 24 name out there," McHale said, noting that his local is on three of Maryland's five central labor councils. "We're using every tool in our toolbox."