Drilling boom, looming retirements create a need for energy workers

The future looks bright, but Hector Rivero is worried.

The demand for energy workers is up, driven by the shale oil and gas boom and the coming surge of retiring baby boomers, which could force some companies to replace up to half of their workers within the next 15 years.

That means a need for everything from technicians and maintenance workers to engineers and CEOs.

“It’s a good problem to have,” said Rivero, president of the Texas Chemical Council. “But we’re concerned. We see challenges in the education system.”

He thinks the state’s emphasis on academics over vocational education has pushed too many students to drop out before they graduate, leaving the training required for today’s high-tech energy industry out of reach.

Other people express concern that the country isn’t producing enough students in science and engineering to meet the growing need.

“The energy business has evolved,” said Scott Rozzell, vice president and general counsel at CenterPoint Energy. “It’s very important they bring a two-year degree, a four-year degree. What we don’t have is good opportunities for people who are just high school graduates.”

Recession a factor

Companies are donating money for scholarships and equipment for training programs, along with offering internships and other inducements to get workers in the door.

Latha Ramchand, dean of the University of Houston’s Bauer College of Business, said the situation seems less dire than it did just two years ago.

That’s partly because the recession prompted so many people to postpone retirement.

Ramchand said there is a gap between workers in their early 30s and younger and those in their mid-50s and older.

“This business is so dependent on the price of oil,” she said, so hiring came to a halt in the 1990s, when oil often was priced below $20 a barrel. “You’re going to see young people having to shoulder more responsibility.”

Community colleges are ground zero.

In addition to lower-division academic programs, they offer job training through associate degrees and certificate programs.

That kicked into high gear when hydraulic fracturing technology opened the Eagle Ford Shale and other areas of the United States, creating jobs in the oil and gas fields and in chemical plants, refineries and related areas.

Chevron Phillips Chemical donated $75,000 to Lee College in Baytown last month for scholarships and equipment for the process technology, instrumentation technology and electrical technology programs.

“It’s a high-tech skill that’s required to operate a modern petrochemical plant,” said Mark Lashier, the executive vice president of olefins and polyolefins at Chevron Phillips.

Most area community colleges offer a similar array of programs.

Mike Speegle, chairman of the process technology department at San Jacinto College, meets regularly with executives from companies that line the Houston Ship Channel.

“They tell us, keep the pipeline full, full of graduates coming out,” he said.

About 200 students graduate every year from San Jacinto’s process technology program, which prepares them for work in chemical and nuclear plants, refineries, food and beverage plants and other manufacturing facilities; 98 percent have jobs when they graduate.

‘Keep the pipeline full’

Chemical plants pay at least $85,000 a year, Rivero said. But he contends the requirement that Texas high school students complete four years of math and science – intended to prepare them for college – instead prompts many to drop out.

“That is an admirable ambition, but it’s not very realistic,” he said. “We hire engineers, chemists, lawyers. But we also hire a tremendous amount of folks willing to work with their hands for a good salary. Welders are commanding over $40 an hour, and our industry can’t find enough of them.”

Debbie Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, said 77 percent of high school students take at least one vocational class – now called career and technical education – despite the academic requirements.

Many are classes in computer and Web design, but she said some schools still offer traditional vocational classes, such as auto mechanics and welding.

A handful of community colleges offer four-year degrees, either on their own or through collaborations with four-year schools.

Brazosport College in Lake Jackson was one of the first, authorized in 2005 to offer a bachelor’s degree in industrial management.

It is aimed at workers in the region’s petrochemical plants, President Millicent Valek said, with lower division requirements in technical skills and the final two years focused on management.

She noted that Texas Gov. Rick Perry called for a $10,000 college degree a few years ago. “This is one,” she said. “These students are employed and realizing job advancement opportunities.”

Campus collaborations

Houston Community College recently announced a deal with the University of Texas at Tyler to allow students to earn UT-Tyler degrees in mechanical or electrical engineering by taking classes at HCC’s Alief campus.

HCC faculty will teach students in the first two years of the program, with UT-Tyler facility teaching the final two years.

That appeals to Maryam Mosahab, who already has a degree in civil engineering but hopes to earn a degree in mechanical engineering in order to work in the oil business.

Originally from Iran – “that’s oil country as well,” she said – Mosahab sees the UT-Tyler program as a way to retool her skills for a new career in her adopted homeland.

CenterPoint’s Rozzell, who serves on the HCC Foundation board, said the collaboration ought to provide an important boost to the energy workforce.

“We need skilled workers, and those skills can be operational skills, like electricians or welders,” he said. “Or they can be engineering skills, math skills. All of those are the kind of things community colleges are well-suited to provide.”

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