US petchem industry strives to close gap in workforce

04 October 2016 22:06 Source:ICIS News

The US petrochemical industry has a growing need for trained workers, just at a time when many welders, pipe fitters, electricians, millwrights and crane operators are retiring. Massive cranes used in loading cargo vessels on the Houston Ship Channel. (Port of Houston)
There is a growing need for trained workers, just at a time when many welders, pipe fitters, electricians, millwrights and crane operators are retiring. Above, operators use massive cranes to load cargo vessels on the Houston Ship Channel. (Port of Houston)

Focus article by David Haydon

HOUSTON (ICIS)--The US petrochemical industry has a growing need for trained workers, just at a time when many welders, pipe fitters, electricians, millwrights and crane operators are retiring.

“It’s across the board,” said Jim Hanna, human resources official at US engineering firm Fluor.

According to Hanna, the gap between supply and demand of workers began between 2011 and 2012.

“It was, one, driven by industry and demand of oil/gas shale development," he said. "And then, two, it was driven by the owners who had their own existing workforces that were nearing retirement. As a result, the demand was tremendous and resources scarce. And it’s still that issue today.”

In welding alone there is a need for at least 230,000 new and replacement workers between 2009 to 2019 in the US.

Melissa Hockstad of the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufactures (AFPM) said one of the industry group’s executive committee members saw that the mix of new projects and worker retirements would become an issue, so like many industry organisations, they began taking steps to address it.

“The way that we look at it, it’s really a five-step process,” she said. “You have to attract people to the industry. You have to prepare them by making them aware of the different pathways they need to follow. Then, of course, you have to hire these individuals, train them, and the last step: You have to retain them.”

Hockstad said AFPM launched an initiative to specifically attract “Millennials” – the generation of workers reaching adulthood from the last decade to now. Their recruitment challenge involves 10 schools in the US, collectively about 170,000 potential students. Those schools work with petrochemical companies to do career expos and other programs, increasing exposure for the petrochemical industry.

Chevron Phillips Chemical (CP Chem) workforce development and training manager Roy Watson said that everyone in the industry is working to close the gap between workers leaving and those yet to come in.

“All this started for me about six years ago," Watson said. "We weren’t actively pursuing workforce development.”

Watson said that, at the time, he had been invited to speak at a Houston high school, to students who had little to no knowledge of the petrochemical industry.

"Kids that were about to graduate – juniors, seniors – they had no idea what they wanted to do," he said. "They didn't know what kind of jobs are right here, high-paying jobs.”

Even more troubling, Watson said, was that the high school was right next to a refinery.

“At that point I made a conscious decision: We had to do something about this,” he said.

In Texas, industry groups and individual companies like CP Chem focus on educational programs, tuition fund-raising and career guidance.

Hanna said Fluor trains individuals in 12-week programs at a centre in Pasadena, Texas. By the end of the year, the program will have certified approximately 300 people for pipe fitting, welding and other craft jobs.

“It’s not going to make them a journeyman in 12 weeks," Hanna said "But it gives them the skills to go out with some training under their belt.” 

Regardless of method, the experts and companies agree on one thing: The need for a new generation of workers isn't going down.

“I’ve been doing this for 35 years with Fluor, and I haven’t seen the demand anywhere as high as it is now," Hanna said. "And I don’t see it changing anytime soon.”

INSET IMAGE: Apprentice welding on a pipe in a workshop during a training course. (Olaf Döring / imageBROKER/REX/Shutterstock)

By David Haydon