Filling proposed Pa. plant posts could be tough

Posted July 17, 2012

By Michael Bradwell

PITTSBURGH – An ethane cracking plant proposed for Beaver County by Shell Oil may not materialize for a few years, but it already has business, labor and workforce educators and developers in the region thinking about how they’ll fill the number of manufacturing jobs potentially in the thousands that could be created as a result of the emerging energy industry, particularly if the cracker gets built.

That was the topic of a two-hour roundtable discussion Monday at the headquarters of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development headed by Jane Oates, assistant secretary for employment and training administration with the U.S. Department of Labor.

While the roundtable wasn’t open to media members, Oates told reporters after the session adjourned that the input from those who attended would help her to determine what kinds of federal funding might be available for training in the region that would help to fill the demand some employers are already seeing.

Some of those who spoke after the meeting said the No. 1 long-term need is to let the region’s young people know about the good-paying jobs that now exist in the area’s energy sector and how they can prepare for those jobs.

United Steelworkers International President Leo Gerrard said that while “tremendous skills exist already” in the region’s labor force, there is a dearth of apprenticeship programs offered by various companies for skilled labor.

According to Gerard, many companies stopped offering apprenticeship programs because of the poaching of their employees by other companies.

The shortage of skilled labor positions was exacerbated when secondary schools ceased encouraging students to enter vocational programs, he added.

Gerard said the advent of Shell’s proposed multibillion ethane cracker plant “presents tremendous opportunities” for those with skilled labor.

The ethane cracking plant would convert ethane from Marcellus Shale natural gas liquids into more profitable chemicals such as ethylene, which is the feedstock for plastics used in a wide variety of products, including food packaging, trash bags, toys, bottles, food containers, vinyl siding, window frames, antifreeze, pantyhose, carpets, tires, adhesives and sealants.

A study by the American Chemistry Council estimated that more than 10,000 new permanent jobs would be created in chemical and supplier industries as a result of a cracker facility locating in the region.

Gerard said he wants to ensure that those jobs become available for people living in the tri-state area who are either in transition or seeking new careers in manufacturing here.

“There’s an opportunity in the United States and in Southwestern Pennsylvania to revitalize manufacturing,” Gerard said, adding that the revitalization of the sector will bring increased demand for people with skilled trades.

Richard Bloomingdale, president of Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, and others who attended Monday’s meeting said manufacturing should be seen as a way for someone with some labor skills to develop them into a higher skill level, “like the electrician who can become an electrical engineer.”

Gerard, Oates and Bloomingdale said businesses that were at the roundtable indicated a willingness “to pay their share” to provide on-the-job training programs for workers.

They also said employers seeing increased demand for products used by the energy industry are also having difficulty hiring additional workers.

The practice of companies training workers “has stalled, and there is a skills gap,” Blomingdale said.

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