Exxon launches broad push to train Texas chemical workers

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Exxon Mobil Corp. is launching a push to recruit and educate thousands of new workers in Houston for expanding chemical operations along the Texas coast.

The nation’s largest energy company is coordinating with programs at nine Houston-area community colleges and organizations, including Houston Community College, Lee College and Lone Star College, to share expertise and curricula as it tries remedy a huge shortage of workers who are trained and ready to fill positions, said Steve Pryor, president of Exxon Mobil’s chemical division.

Exxon Mobil on Friday will announce a $500,000 commitment to coordinate the programs and recruit prospective workers through a new website. The homepage of the website features a full-screen display of the word “JOBS” followed by a map of Texas that reads “Houston + Natural Gas = Jobs.”

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“There are literally thousands of new jobs coming to the Houston area and across the Gulf Coast being created because of what I think of as a tidal wave of new investment created for the chemical industry,” Pryor told FuelFix. “It’s lots of jobs and at the heart of them, to enable all of these (projects) to happen, you need skilled workers.”

Exxon Mobil and other companies have announced nearly 100 chemical projects with a combined cost of $72 billion, spurred by the economic advantage that low-cost natural gas provides to the industry, according to a report from the American Chemistry Council. Chemical plants use natural gas for fuel and as a raw material.

Exxon Mobil plans a multibillion-dollar expansion of the chemical production capacity at its Baytown complex.

The new chemical projects will create 46,000 permanent chemical industry jobs if they are completed, as well as about 264,000 jobs at supporting companies and contractors, according to the Chemistry Council’s estimates.

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Temporary construction jobs and others tied to the economic impact of the plants would add almost another 1.2 million total jobs by 2020, the council estimated.

And that figure is specific to the chemical projects. It doesn’t take into account demand for workers with similar skills among builders of pipelines and transmission lines, operators of offshore equipment or employees for onshore oil exploration and production efforts, said Bill Gilmer, director of the Bauer College of Business Institute for Regional Forecasting at the University of Houston.

“It’s going to be a real crunch for that kind of skilled labor,” Gilmer said.

Companies have faced challenges in recruiting workers for plants and construction jobs in recent years, with some offering to pay for training and guaranteeing employment upon completion of programs.

“It doesn’t take a long training process, but it’s been very difficult to draw people into those programs,” Gilmer said. “Sometimes I think that young people would rather work at GameStop under the air conditioner than go out and work under the hot sun for three times the money.”

The average annual salary for a chemical industry employee in Texas is $86,000, according to Exxon Mobil.

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Gilmer said that with overtime, some skilled construction workers can earn more than $100,000 a year within a few years of starting at the jobs.

Lee College, which is located near Exxon Mobil’s expanding Baytown complex, is coordinating the training effort, called the Community College Petrochemical Initiative. The college will organize an exchange of curricula so that each college can add material to existing programs, if desired, Lee College President Dennis Brown said. The colleges will also share instructors and coordinate on outreach efforts to get more students interested in plant jobs, Brown said.

Programs range from 12 months to two years, offering certificates or associate degrees to students who finish courses with “the knowledge, skills and ability to be able to perform on the job,” Brown said.

The college says 79 percent of students who complete its programs land jobs.

“We just need to get enough folks who have the right skills and talent in the respective career fields so that they’ll be available to be competitive and get hired for these positions,” he said.

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