Economic Alliance CEO Chad Burke Works to Improve his Hometown Region
By Rod Evans
Armed with a degree in economics from Texas A&M University and vast experience in economic development, Chad Burke could have chosen to continue his career five years ago in practically any metropolitan hub that he desired, but the Deer Park native knew exactly where he wanted to be.
After working in College Station with Texas A&M’s Texas Engineering Extension Service following his 1987 graduation, Burke decided to apply his prodigious skills in economic development and impact modeling and strategic planning close to home as the president and CEO of the Economic Alliance Houston Port Region.
“I came in contact with Jan Lawler, the former president of the Economic Alliance, who was planning to retire soon,” Burke, 48, recalls. “She began a conversation about me coming back to my hometown and doing what I had been doing across the state for my home region and that appealed to me. I wanted to come back to the east side of Houston, the ship channel region, and apply some of my trade to the hometown area.”
Since 2009, Burke has helped to refine the Economic Alliance’s mission of growing the regional economy in the communities around the ship channel. Created in 1985, the non-profit Economic Alliance provides economic development services on behalf of 16 communities along the 25-mile Houston Ship Channel. The organization has been highly successful in helping to grow the economy of the region throughout its history and Burke has overseen a particularly productive period.
In 2012 alone, the Alliance facilitated business procurement that generated over 1,500 jobs and $1.5 billion in capital investments. In 2013, the Alliance spearheaded efforts that resulted in more than 670 new jobs and $1.2 billion in capital investments in the region.
“Our main focus has been and always will be growing the regional economy around the channel. We are focused primarily on manufacturing in the petro chemical and refining industries,” Burke says. “In addition, we focus on the logistics industries, which include all of the maritime work on the channel, such as trucking, warehousing and all of the components that move products in and out of this very busy port.”
Burke, who was born and raised in Deer Park and is a graduate of Deer Park High School, gained the specialized skills that would later serve him well as the head of the Economic Alliance by working with the Engineering Extension Service after college on a variety of projects, including strategic planning for communities, economic impact modeling for facilities, and feasibility studies for new facilities for cities and counties looking to stimulate their economic development through manufacturing, tourism, entertainment and other industries.
“All of the investment that comes into the region because of the work we (the Economic Alliance) do comes back to the cities and citizens in the form of tax bases and jobs created and the spending power created through those jobs,” Burke said.
Closing the Education Gap
When Burke first took the reins of the Alliance, the region was experiencing the loss of much of the chemical manufacturing business to overseas locations, but technological advances would soon begin reversing that trend.
“This was pre-recession and before the onset of technology that created hydraulic fracking and horizontal drilling, so when production of natural gas in Texas shale plays, as well as those in North Dakota, began producing, that lowered the cost of natural gas, which is the feed stock of all the specialty chemical manufacturing we do in the region,” he said. “That flipped the table of global dynamics to where it was most effective to produce those polymers here. We previously were shipping production capacity around the world and closing facilities at home. Now we have existing companies expanding locally and new companies are coming in to invest because they know we have the infrastructure and talent to produce these polymers that are the building blocks for everything from water bottles to TVs to automobiles and homes.”
The region is now in the midst of a boom in the manufacturing of the specialty chemicals needed to produce polymers used in the creation of a variety of plastics and other materials that Burke says promises to grow enormously in the coming years. He cites a survey done last year by the Port of Houston Authority and the Houston Port Bureau that projects about $35 billion in planned expansion over the next three to eight years along the ship channel, almost all of it in the petro chemical industry. These projections indicate more than 111,000 direct construction jobs and over 154,000 induced and indirect jobs will be created between now and 2015.
But while the construction of new facilities and the expansion of manufacturing is great news for the region, Burke says it comes with a serious caveat.
“The downside to the ongoing expansion is we’ve got so many good jobs available that we don’t have the capacity in skilled workforce to meet what is about to happen to us as the build out of the expansion in the chemical industry here intensifies,” Burke says.
Given the lack of skilled workers in the local workforce, one of the Alliance’s biggest initiatives involves working with school districts, community colleges, businesses and communities to solve the problem of training the workforce needed to support the industry’s growth.
“Our Workforce Development Committee is working with 11 school districts to improve training in these skilled jobs and since we began the process, the Greater Houston Partnership has included us in their 10-county workforce initiative. In fact, they have elevated the petro chemical sector to the top of the list of areas they want to effect change in,” he said.
Burke says some of the jobs lacking in skilled workers that are considered critical to the expansion in the petro chemical industry include electricians, millwrights, pipe fitters, welders, crane and rigging operators, lab technicians and truck drivers.
“It’s pretty amazing to see billboards along the freeway offering $5,000 signing bonuses for truck drivers,” Burke says.
The Alliance fully supports one of the main drivers of the educational push: the Community College Petrochemical Initiative, begun in 2013 by executives with ExxonMobil in a partnership with Lee College. The program launched with the oil giant offering a $500,000 grant to the college to fund job and workforce development, but was expanded to include other community colleges in the region. Now, the recently formed Texas Gulf Coast Consortium of Community Colleges operates a job training website (Tgcccpi.org) that provides employment listings in 14 high-demand petro chemical industry fields. A by-product of the success of the initiatives is that the community colleges are also in need of qualified instructors for the new courses being created.
Burke and his wife of 20 years, Shannon, are parents to two teenagers and have no plans to leave Deer Park anytime soon.
“The most pleasant part of my job is the tremendous quality of people we get to work with who all work together with cohesion and teamwork to benefit the entire region,” he said.