FocusNew US plants, retirements to tighten chem labour market

07 December 2012 17:31  [Source: ICIS news]

By Al Greenwood

HOUSTON (ICIS)--A wave of retirements and new US plants could tighten the nation's labour market for chemical employees, an executive with Chevron Phillips Chemical said.

US companies will still be able to fill their open position with qualified workers, said Greg Wagner, vice president of human resources for Chevron Phillips Chemical.

However, companies will have to widen their search for potential employees as well as find ways to make themselves attractive to job candidates, he said.

Companies will also have to compete with each other to fill their empty positions. “There are a lot of people in similar situations,” Wagner said.

The labour market for the US chemical industry was quite different 10 years ago, when many employees were far from retiring and the industry itself was far from expanding.

“This was not a significant challenge,” Wagner said.

This changed with the nation's ageing workforce and rising natural-gas production.

The advent of shale gas is providing the US chemical industry with low-cost natural-gas based feedstock, giving it a cost advantage against much of the world, which relies on more expensive oil-based feedstock.

The prospects of a large, steady supply of ethane is encouraging companies to either consider building new plants or going forward with expansion plans.

Chevron Phillips itself plans to build two polyethylene (PE) plants and a world-scale ethane cracker in Texas.

Fluor expects 4-6 ethane crackers to be built, and those new plants will need to hire staff.

In fact, the American Chemistry Council (ACC) estimates that a 25% increase in the US supply of ethane could create 17,000 jobs in the chemical industry.

The new plants and retirements will increase demand for employees, especially engineers, operators and mechanics, Wagner said.

In the next 5-6 years, Chevron Phillips intends to hire 2,600-3,000 people, Wagner said. The company will essentially turn over about half of its workforce, as it currently employees about 5,000.

A large number of those new hires will replace employees retiring, he said. “When you add the growth element, the numbers get pretty large.”

While Wagner cannot speak for other companies, he expects that Chevron Phillips is typical of the industry. There will be a scramble for employees.

Chevron Phillips Chemical is adopting new tactics to fill its ranks with qualified employees.

The company intends to look for employees from a larger pool of universities and community colleges, Wagner said.

In addition, Chevron Phillips will make itself more attractive to job candidates, looking at the ways it engages and develops its employees, he said.

“We're putting a lot of energy into making CP Chem the best place to work,” he said. “Everything we are doing right now is about helping us become the premier chemical company in the world and the place that everyone wants to come work for.”

In fact, retaining employees is just as crucial as attracting new ones, he said.

Ultimately, the company intends to expand its programmes that target high school and junior high students.

For these students and others, the chemical industry has a lot to offer, given its outlook for growth. A job in the chemical industry will be among the most stable places to be in the next decade, Wagner said.

In addition to stability, salaries could also attract employees. The average chemical salary is $83,700/year (€64,400/year), 41% higher than the average manufacturing wage, said ACC spokesman Patrick Hurston.

“It is certainly an attractive industry in terms of employment prospects and wages,” Hurston said.

Employers can also entice workers with the prospects of working in a growing industry.

“It's an exciting time to be in the chemical business,” Wagner said. “That's part of the story we are trying to tell people.”

($1 = €0.77)

By: Al Greenwood
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