Gulf Coast petrochemical industry joins efforts to secure adequate workforce

Faced with an aging workforce where 40% could retire within a decade, companies have contributed to help make a new $60-million training facility possible.

Image courtesy of San Jacinto College

The San Jacinto College’s LyondellBasell Center for Petrochemical, Energy & Technology (CPET) is the petrochemical industry’s latest answer to workforce challenges.

“In the Gulf Coast area there are a lot new facilities being built and a lot of people retiring,” said Clarissa Belbas, director of resources for San Jacinto’s CPET program.

“So there´s a significant need for not only operators to run them, but also for craft people,” she added. The CPET center opened in September to try to fill that need.

There is work underway and planned representing over $200 billion in petrochemical investment in the United States, much of it along the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Unique offer of training infrastructure

“Nowhere else would there be this kind of concentration of the kind of equipment and resources,” Belbas added during a telephone interview with Petrochemical Update.

Infrastructure includes an 8,000-square-feet glycol distillation unit used to help develop troubleshooting skills. There are instrumentation labs, analyzers, digital control systems and process labs. There is also a pump trainer, valve testers, as well as electrical and controller labs.

New craft rooms to train in pipefitting and millwrighting for NCCER (National Center for Construction Education and Research) certification will come online later this year.

LyondellBasell, which owns property including Texan plants in Corpus Christi as well as near Houston, contributed $5 million. Emerson Electric donated the equivalent $1.3 million. Other companies donated funds or contributed equipment.

Tailoring to the needs of the petrochemical industry

“Students weren´t necessarily graduating with the skills sets that companies needed, didn´t have as much hands-on experience, so companies like Ineos, LyondellBasell and Shell got involved” Belbas said.

They said, “Let us help you redesign what you are doing. This building was a result of that collaboration,” Belbas said.

As a result, besides Associate degrees offered full or part time, there are also certification programs to train in crafts like millwrighting and pipefitting.

“What would happen is, let us just take a company, say you have Exxon doing a big expansion, they will hire a contract company, say Turner or Zachry, and they are the ones that bring in all the construction people,” she said.

“So a company like Exxon would require the contractor company, Turner or Zachry, to bring in 150 pipefitters, and half of those need to have this certain level of journeyman certification and pipefitting,” she said.

But contractors were “finding a really hard time finding people with industry certifications and experience,” Belbas added.

“So that´s part of where the focus is right now, to build programs that can produce these craft people” so that they can immediately go on the job and be productive, she said.

Two-year degrees and certificates

Associate degrees are offered in Process Technology, Instrumentation, Electrical Technology, Non-Destructive Testing, and Environment Health and Safety.

Then “we have the non-degree programs like pipefitting, millwrighting and we also have the instrumentation as a non-degree,” she said.

“In one case you are getting an industry certification that gives you your value, on the other you are getting the associate degree that gives you your credentials,” she said.

“The pipefitting curriculum comes in levels. Each requires roughly 128 hours, doable over the course of a regular semester,” and stackable, she said.

“Let´s say the student has a level 1 pipefitting. With it they can go work right away. Sometimes they stick around because with each different level, they get the possibility for a higher salary,” Belbas said.

Besides the programs, petrochemical companies can also use the facilities with their own trainers.

“CPChem (Chevron Phillips Chemical) right now, to give an example, what they are doing with us on the non-credit side is they are bringing their incoming workers” and trainers, she said.

The San Jacinto College has about 3,000 students in the Winter 2020 semester, roughly half to 60% in the Process Technology area, and then, of the remaining half, half would be on a path for instrumentation, Belbas said.

“The remaining last quarter would be a mix between Environmental Health and Safety, Non-destructive testing, and electrical,” she added.

Students can expect a placement rate of over 90% given a high demand in the industry. According to San Jacinto college, the median annual salary in Texas, as of 2017, for a chemical plant and systems operator exceeded $70,000.

Technology challenges: balancing old and new

“When we first moved into the building we would have a lot of the local companies come and say: This is all great, really flashy, but in our facility there is really old stuff,” Belbas said.

“So we actually have both, we have to,” she added.

Older but still widely used technology includes piping and rotating equipment. On the new technology, students get trained on digital twins, peak data, digital transformation and robotics.

“Drones are being used in the inspection area quite a bit,” Belbas said.

“We have a lot of the old instrumentation that dates back to the 50s and 60s and then we have representation of the latest technologies,” she said.

San Jacinto College is also working with companies and clients that are "helping us bring in the technology that is not even being deployed yet,” she said.

“We are exploring and starting to work into the area of virtual reality training,” Belbas added.

By Renzo Pipoli