By Jeannie Peng Mansyur
Help is wanted in the petrochemical industry
In fact, help is wanted so much that approximately 11,430 direct employees and resident contractors in the combined operations, maintenance and engineering occupations will be needed to replace attrition and fill newly-created positions in the petrochemical industry by December 2019, according to Chad Burke, president and CEO of the Economic Alliance Houston Port Region.
What is driving such need?
With $40 billion in capital investment, it is estimated that local expansions will result in 1,000 permanent jobs and approximately 30,000 construction jobs.
“It’s an awesome time to be in this industry and the Houston Ship Channel region,” said Todd Monette, site manager for LyondellBasell in Channelview.
Examples of local expansions include an ethylene cracker and propylene production unit with Dow Chemical in Freeport; an ethylene cracker with ExxonMobil Chemical in Baytown; the La Porte, Channelview and Corpus Christi expansions, and the potential propylene oxide (PO) and tertiary butyl alcohol (TBA) grass root plant with LyondellBasell; and a 1,230-mile ethane pipeline and an ethane export project with Enterprise Products.
“One of the biggest fallacies, the big myth, that everyone thinks is that what’s happening on the upstream side with oil prices is equally affecting our hiring in the downstream sector,” said Monette, who also serves as a board member and past board chairman with the East Harris County Manufacturers Association (EHCMA), and board member with the Texas Chemical Council (TCC). “The fact is, even with the amount of project needs, we equally have personnel needs for the run and maintain activities of our plants, as workers are retiring. We have got to get people into the workforce pipeline to run our plants along with the construction demand.”
Of the 130 plants in the region, approximately 93 percent of all new hires will be the result of attrition and retirement. At his Channelview plant, Monette hires approximately 30-40 people each year in various jobs from operators to instrument technicians to electricians to replace those who have left due to retirement or other reasons. Many of the positions start between the $70,000 to $80,000 salary range and increase with experience and overtime.
Finding workers just for the new construction projects alone presents a challenge. Burke warns that a shortage in skilled craftsman needed for these expansions could slow or delay project completions.
“With many major projects under construction now and for the next two to three years, it has put a real pinch on the pool of industrial construction workers,” said Burke. “These companies utilize a much higher number of craftsman than the plants and are currently in much greater need.”
Monette said that out of those contracted for the LyondellBasell expansions, there will be some who are considered for full-time plant positions after the projects are completed.
Turning to education for the right applicants
While the petrochemical industry is in need of more workers, what it really needs is a more “skilled workforce,” according to Randy Boeding, who is retired from the petrochemical industry and now serves as an independent consultant with the R Boeding Group, LLC. Boeding also is a consultant to San Jacinto College for the development of the Center for Petrochemical, Energy, and Technology.
“Now, applicants who want jobs in petrochemical need to have two-year associate degrees and this is very different than how it was in the past,” said Boeding.
In today’s petrochemical industry, applicants are expected to have credentials beyond high school but not necessarily four-year degrees. “These are not the old labor jobs from the plants of the past,” said Monette. “The jobs have changed over the years, are very technical in nature and now require a different and more advanced skill set. It’s important for people to have at least a certificate or associate degree.”
In addition to requiring certificates and degrees for the job, industry representatives now have a seat at the table when discussing petrochemical program curriculum and training facility needs in the education sector. Each petrochemical-related program at San Jacinto College is guided by an advisory committee that meets throughout the year to ensure that courses fall in line with what is needed from new hires in the industry.
Graduates out of the San Jacinto College process technology, non-destructive testing, welding, pipefitting, electrical and instrumentation programs are in such high demand that companies contribute thousands of dollars each year toward scholarships just to get students through the programs and into the hiring process.
Last year, Dow announced an apprenticeship program for San Jacinto College students that includes salary and tuition for training and books for three years. This unique opportunity allows students to study full time for the first year and pick up their internship hours while studying part time during the second and third years. Shell announced that it will pay for full-ride scholarships for selected students who complete advanced chemistry courses and who want to work in the plants for more analytical purposes.
Students also are encouraged to pursue internships, with many receiving full-time positions once they complete their programs.
“We want industry face-to-face with our students,” said Jeffrey Parks, dean of business and technology at San Jacinto College. “We want industry on our advisory boards and in our facilities.”
Building the region’s petrochemical training hub
San Jacinto College is in the planning process of building a new facility for petrochemical training and is relying on industry representatives’ feedback to do so. These representatives are part of a Petrochemical Advisory Council formed by San Jacinto College Chancellor Dr. Brenda Hellyer.
The Petrochemical Advisory Council includes representatives from approximately 15 petrochemical companies, said Boeding. They are tasked with assessing the curriculum, equipment and planning for the Center, which is projected to be completed in 2018. It will be the largest facility on the College’s Central Campus at approximately 133,000 square feet. The Center will contain an exterior glycol unit that is incorporated into the training in all of the programs. The new facility will house training spaces and equipment for programs in process technology, instrumentation, electrical and non-destructive testing, as well as space for continuing education and contract training for industry partners.
“The Center for Petrochemical, Energy and Technology will be a technologically-advanced facility for the region’s workforce training,” said Hellyer. “This is made possible because of voters in our district who approved funding in the 2015 bond referendum to build this new facility. I also have to thank our industry partners for providing their invaluable insight to create the Center so that we can recruit and train skilled workers for our region, which is home to the world’s second largest petrochemical complex.”
The new Center for Petrochemical, Energy and Technology will be the first facility constructed from the 2015 bond election. The $425 million bond referendum was approved by voters in the District in November 2015 and includes a Center for Engineering and Technology, new cosmetology and culinary centers, a new welcome center and classroom building, along with the renovation of nine facilities that are at least 30 years old. The funding also includes infrastructure and security updates. In addition, San Jacinto College will open a Center for Industrial Technology next spring to serve as a training hub for welding, pipefitting fabrication, diesel technology, international business and logistics, electrical technology, engineering design graphics and HVACR.
San Jacinto College recently opened the Maritime Technology and Training Center on the Maritime Campus at 3700 Old State Highway 146 in La Porte, which serves to complement the petrochemical industry. Maritime and petrochemical coexist to produce and move product that has ultimately resulted in the region’s creation of 1,174,567 jobs in the state of Texas and a $264.9 billion statewide economic impact.
“In my opinion the new petrochemical training facility is an incredible example of education getting it right,” said Burke. “It will do two things, directly support the main economic engine in the region and prepare people for careers. A facility like this will ensure that this region maintains its edge in developing a qualified workforce.”