Bechtel uses tech and business tools to offset impact of tight skills market

Business and technological innovations such as setting up specialty welding companies and a new mobile field-supervision software platform are helping Bechtel offset the impact of the tight skills market, and better train and retain its existing workforce, Sam Lyon, global manager Workforce Services at Bechtel, said during the Petrochemical Workforce Development Conference in Houston on April 19.

Speaking at an owner & contractor panel along with senior managers from Sasol and Olin, Lyon said Bechtel is developing and pursuing five major initiatives to counter falling labor productivity and the precipitous decline in skilled, experienced craft workers in the U.S.

The company has seen a significant drop in skills among craft workers in U.S. industrial construction based on results from written and performance verification tests it has administered in the last 8-10 years, Lyon said.

Productivity rates will likely continue to deteriorate as an estimated 17% of the construction workforce in the U.S. will retire in the next eight to 10 years, according to the Construction Labor Market Analyzer (CLMA), an analytics company that produces real-time labor market intelligence.

Meanwhile, the average age for skilled workers in the industrial trades, such as ironworkers, electricians, welders and pipefitters, is 42, with an expected employment attrition rate of 11% in the next couple of years and 28% in the next 10 years.

In the Gulf Coast, in particular, a lot of contractors currently report productivity rates of 2.4-2.5 and “2.1 productivity [as a] new average” for the region, CLMA CEO Daniel Groves told Petrochemical Update earlier in 2016.

Houston training center

To hire and train better workers, Bechtel plans to start a welding and training center outside Houston by the end of 2016, Lyon said. The 20,000-square-foot facility will have 15-20 booths for pre-hire testing and skills upgrade training for both existing employees and job applicants.

The center will also offer a couple of state-of -the-art classrooms equipped for virtual training in the U.S. and internationally. The facility will allow Bechtel to transfer a lot of its craft training and leadership training for foremen and general foremen from the job site to Houston, and possibly run both simultaneously.

The company also plans to do pre-hire performance verifications at the training center for projects on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Knowledge networks

As part of developing its knowledge management culture, in the last year and a half, Bechtel has also set up 23 knowledge networks across the company – from civil structural & architectural, commissioning and start-up, and digital supply chain, to electrical control systems and welding – to enable employees to store and share information.

Moreover, Bechtel plans to set up a global labor knowledge network that will focus on craft recruiting, craft training and craft productivity.

“This [program] is a business imperative for us,” Lyon said. “It is going to be a great differentiator for us and our employees to have a place to go to get the right answer to do their job better.”

Specialty welding companies

Bechtel has also set up a couple of specialty welding companies where it places and upgrades the skills of its best and brightest welders.

Several years ago, it launched a union-shop specialty welding company called Custom Arc. A core group from the company is assigned to almost all of Bechtel’s projects, including many of its open-shop projects, to perform the most critical welding work.

This strategy has allowed Bechtel to execute its projects more effectively, transfer knowledge to other employees and recruit more of its existing workers to the specialty welding companies.

In 2015, Bechtel also set up an open-shop specialty welding company called Mastercraft, which has since expanded to other key skills, such as instrumentation and millwright.

Supervisory training

To increase its overall craft performance, Bechtel is training and teaching its supervisory staff such as foremen and general foremen to better understand and manage labor productivity, safety and planning.

Several years ago, the company partnered with a university to create a high-performance crew training course. The week-long course focuses on teaching productivity, safety and effective planning and has trained about 350 foremen and general foremen to date, Lyon said.

Bechtel plans to bring the programme to its virtual classrooms when its training center opens up later in 2016.

Innovation fund

“There is a lot of opportunity [for innovation in the industry] that we are not particularly capitalizing on,” Lyon said.

To that end, at the beginning of the year, Bechtel committed millions of dollars to set up a Future Fund and created a Chief Innovation Officer position to identify the innovative and technological opportunities that could help the company work more safely, increase productivity and reduce costs.

As part of the initiative, the company is currently co-developing new technology to advance its e-track payroll system. 

The new system allows the company to put an invisible fence around a construction project and automatically check workers into the job when they cross the invisible line. It also allows foremen to quickly get a picture of which employees are around and verify that they are at work, Lyon said.

In November 2015, Bechtel announced it had entered a Joint Development Agreement with software-provider Rhumbix for the further development of Rhumbix’s field-supervision platform for large-scale construction projects.

The companies will initially focus on enhancing the Rhumbix platform's ability to increase worksite productivity and efficiency. Longer-term, once out of beta-stage development, the platform will add health and safety features and offer additional productivity and efficiency gains.  

When fully developed, the cloud-based platform could help Bechtel track the location of its workforce with mobile devices in real time, perform time and motion studies and ultimately allow the company to use data analytics to monitor its on-site safety, production and performance.

Bechtel currently tracks its work activities by a charge code. The system could potentially allow, depending on the specific area workers are in, to automatically and more accurately charge the finished work to the relevant charge code and find how many hours of work it takes to perform each activity, Lyon said.