Lee takes lead in training petrochem workers

With Lee College of Baytown, Texas, as the lead institution in a $500,000 ExxonMobil grant awarded last June, nine Houston-area community colleges are partnering to tackle the critical issue of training new workers for the petrochemical industry.

More than 50,000 petrochemical workers are needed over the next decade to replace retiring workers and fill new jobs created by highly publicized plant expansions along the upper Texas Gulf Coast. Where will those workers come from, and who will train them?

Industry leaders and higher education officials realize it will take the combined capacity of each community college if enough local skilled workers for these coveted positions will be ready as jobs come open.

It’s no secret that an aging workforce in the petrochemical industry and plant expansions — the result of horizontal drilling and fracking technologies that are opening up new supplies of oil and gas within the U.S. — have created a “golden moment” for workers along the Texas Gulf Coast. Millwrights, machinists, pipefitters, process operators, welders, electricians, instrumentation technicians and other workers are in high demand.

But so are trainers: the individuals who will teach this new generation of petrochemical workers.

“The need for qualified trainers and instructors is as great as the need for new workers themselves,” says Debi Jordan, executive director of the Center for Workforce and Community Development at Lee College, which sits in the heart of Texas’ oil and gas corridor. Jordan chairs the college partnership, called the Community College Petrochemical Initiative.

“In this region of the Texas Gulf Coast, plant expansions are expected to need 50,000 workers in the construction trades over the next 10 years, and more than a thousand additional full-time, permanent employees thereafter as a result,” Jordan said. “That means as much as 40 percent of today’s current workers will be changing over, meaning the push to find and train a skilled workforce is on.”

ExxonMobil recently put up $500,000 to help area community colleges expand student recruitment efforts for petrochemical jobs in short supply — and to find qualified, industry-driven instructors.

Working together on this common issue — with “9-1-1 urgency,” as Jordan likes to describe it — are Alvin Community College, Brazosport College, College of the Mainland, Galveston College, Houston Community College, Lee College, Lone Star College, San Jacinto College and Wharton County Junior College.

“We need trainers and instructors now,” Jordan repeats. “We need experienced individuals nearing retirement with flexible schedules who are available on a short-term basis, and are looking to write the next chapter of their lives.

“We are looking for people with practical, hands-on experience to teach our long-list of customized construction trades and petrochemical courses, such as Instrumentation, Pipefitting and Process Technology.”

Individuals with certification from the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER) as master trainers, craft instructors, safety specialists, and technician instructors are in high demand, as are those with knowledge and experience with OSHA, TXDOT and EPA regulations. “In some instances, certifications are as valuable as degrees,” Jordan explains.

Candidates who are familiar with ISO management systems standards, Lean Six Sigma and Project Management will also be welcomed at local community colleges as corporate trainers and consultants.

Individuals retiring from careers in the petrochemical industry are perfect candidates for training positions, Jordan says. “When a worker in the industry nears retirement, we want to talk. The next generation is waiting, and training is one of the most rewarding ways to give back and stay active.”