Energy industry eager to attract more skilled trades workers

With all the new projects planned along the Gulf Coast, the energy industry predicts it will need 500,000 new workers between now and 2020.

The industry is trying to attract and train skilled workers including electricians, pipefitters and welders. Toward that end, the president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute toured the apprenticeship training program of the Pipefitters Local Union 211 in Houston on Wednesday.

Jack Gerard said the issue of making sure the industry has enough skilled workers is a CEO-level concern.

“We want to make sure we’re prepared for the work of the future,” he said.

The industry trade group established a labor/management agreement in 2009 with the pipefitters’ United Association union; it has similar agreements with other skilled craft members that are members of the AFL-CIO’s Construction and Building Trades.

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Gerard said he’s traveling the country looking at apprenticeship programs and is pleased with what he is seeing. He is also encouraged by the cooperation between labor and management to make sure there are enough trained workers to fill the expected openings.

In Houston, Pipefitters Local 211’s apprenticeship program lasts five years. The union currently has 277 apprentices who work full-time during the day and go to school four hours a night, two nights a week, said Ira Schramek Jr., the coordinator of the joint apprenticeship and training committee.

The training program is free for students, who pay only for books, he said. Their first year starting wage is $15.62 an hour plus health insurance and other benefits. By the time they graduate as journeymen, they’re earning $28.37 an hour plus benefits.

About 70 percent of the students focus on welding and pipefitting; the rest study heating, ventilation and air conditioning.

Jason Ducey is in his fifth year of his apprenticeship training. He got laid off from his job a week ago when the remodeling project he was working on at University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center came to end. But he said he isn’t worried.

“It’s not a big thing,” said the 33-year-old, who has been enjoying the last few days relaxing before lining up another job. He could have already had one but it was in Kingwood and he lives in Clear Lake.

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Ducey joined the apprenticeship training program after working as a ditchdigger. The company he was working for was sold and a friend suggested he train as a welder/pipefitter.

Initially, Ducey didn’t earn as much as he did digging ditches. But now he’s way past his old wage of $21 an hour and he sees a bright future.

“I’m set for the rest of my life with a trade that will provide for myself and my family,” he said. “A lot of folks don’t know where they’ll be in a year or five years from now.”

Ducey said he isn’t worried the work will dry up, especially since he’s taking extra course work in heating, ventilation and air conditioning.

In hot Houston, that’s job security, he said. “I don’t see it going anywhere.”

In other parts of the nation, half of the students enter union-sponsored apprenticeship programs with a bachelor’s degree, said Sean McGarvey, president of the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department in Washington, D.C.

They can’t get a good paying job with their English or history degree but they can make $100,000 to $125,000 a year as an electrician, said McGarvey, who was on the tour in Houston.

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