$15B Gulf Coast chemicals boom fuels hiring war

Construction at Chevron Phillips Chemical's Cedar Bayou 1-Hexene plant in Baytown will will be completed in early 2014. The expansion there and at other Chevron Phillips plants along the Gulf coast was prompted by low natural gas prices. (Chevron Phillips)
Construction at Chevron Phillips Chemical’s Cedar Bayou 1-Hexene plant in Baytown will will be completed in early 2014. The expansion there and at other Chevron Phillips plants along the Gulf coast was prompted by low natural gas prices. (Chevron Phillips)

The petrochemical business long operated below the radar, trying not to draw attention as it rode the boom and bust cycles of the industry.

But that’s changing as shale gas has promised a steady supply of low-cost natural gas, which provides both fuel and feedstock for the chemical industry.

Chemical companies have become both economic players — an expansion estimated at more than $15 billion is under way at chemical plants along the Texas Gulf coast — and supplicants on the labor market.

“It’s super challenging right now,” said Greg Wagner, vice president of human resources at Chevron Phillips Chemical Co.

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Wagner met with a small group of reporters Tuesday at the company’s headquarters in The Woodlands to discuss the impact of an aging labor force and the shale gas boom on the chemical industry.

“With shale gas, our world has turned upside down,” he said. “Frankly, we weren’t as prepared for it as we should have been.”

But he said the company, a joint venture of Chevron Corp. and Phillips 66, is aggressively playing catch-up, both through its Gulf Coast petrochemicals project, which will add hundreds of permanent jobs, and through internships, hiring programs and signing bonuses.

“We’re trying to get the best and the brightest, but that’s tough in Houston,” Wagner said.

He arrived at the company from Chevron in 2012, part of an infusion of new management.

Chevron Phillips Chemical has announced a $5 billion project to build an ethane cracker at its Cedar Bayou plant in Baytown, as well as two polyethylene units in Old Ocean, in Brazoria County.

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Front-end engineering has begun and applications have been filed for permits, spokeswoman Melanie Samuelson said. Construction is expected to begin next year, she said.

On Monday, the company announced it also will expand ethylene production by 200 million pounds with the construction of a tenth furnace at its Sweeny complex in Old Ocean. Construction should begin within the next quarter, with start-up expected in 2014.

Other companies are expanding, as well.

“We’re competing for the same people, whether it’s at UT, A&M, LSU or Lee College, so we’re trying to build relationships,” Wagner said.

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

Exxon Mobil Corp. said this spring it will expand its chemical complex in Baytown to take advantage of the natural gas bounty. Dow Chemical in 2012 announced a $4 billion expansion along the Gulf Coast, including a new ethylene production plant at its Freeport complex.

That is expected to make hiring construction workers difficult, and Wagner conceded contractors may have to bring in workers from far beyond the Houston region.

But he’s mostly been concerned with filling the permanent jobs at the company, from plant operators and mechanics to engineers, researchers, accountants and other professionals.

The company now has about 4,800 employees, almost 70 percent of them working along the Gulf Coast. The average age is 47, and about one-third are eligible for retirement, Wagner said.

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About half are operators or mechanics, working in the company’s chemical plants. Another 25 percent are engineers or researchers.

Wagner said the company expects to hire between 2,500 and 3,000 people over the next five years.

The breakdown between new hires and replacements for retiring workers was not immediately available.

The need for workers is a sign of changing times, he said.

“We are not constrained by cash. Our parent (companies) are both doing very well. It’s more people. It’s, how much can you do with the people you have? We haven’t looked at it that way before.”

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