Project owners review hiring plans to tap Gulf Coast labor pool

Investing in customized training programs for new hires and rethinking the company culture are helping petrochemical project owners in Texas and Louisiana retain valuable employees amid a shortage of qualified construction and permanent operational staff, according to an owner and contractor panel at the Petrochemical Workforce Development Conference in Houston on April 19.

Speaking along with senior managers from Bechtel and TRS Staffing, Bruce Raiff, learning & performances leader at Olin, and Jeffrey Gill, Human Resources - People and Organizational Effectiveness at Sasol, discussed their companies’ strategies to offset the impact of the tight skills market on the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Some 79% of U.S. companies have problems finding qualified labor and 65% have problems finding and retaining professionals, according to a February 2016 survey conducted by the Construction Labor Market Analyzer (CLMA) among owners, contractors and other industry participants across the country.

About 20% of the respondents also said their productivity decreased over the past year by more than 10%, with the U.S. Southeast and Gulf Coast regions suffering the most from poor productivity and labor shortages.

Olin's customized training for process operators

Olin entered the Texas market in late 2015 after it acquired The Dow Chemical Company’s U.S. Gulf Coast chlor-alkali and vinyl, global chlorinated organics and global epoxy businesses. 

A key part of the company’s current workforce development strategy in Freeport, Texas dates back to an experiment it began nine years ago to fill out its pipeline with skilled process operators, Raiff said. Previously, Olin would hire 1-2 operators at a time once a new facility starts operations and would train them internally.

In 2007, the company hired a lot of operators at once and instead enrolled them in a customized 14-week process technology training program it had developed in partnership with a local two-year college.

Besides teaching the basics of process technology, the program trains new operator hires to develop safety-first skills and mindset. Once new employees successfully complete classes and training, they are released for in-plant training at a specific job site.

In Freeport, Olin has partnered with Brazosport College to teach new operator hires process technology and safety skills using the existing professors at the college and Olin’s internal staff.

“It was very critical for us to have the right credits and of course retention after this investment,” Raiff said.

This strategy has also allowed Olin to hire a very diverse group of people – from teachers and returning veterans to people looking for a second career – who are capable of learning and willing to work around the processes inside and outside, Raiff said.

Other companies in the area are either participating in Olin’s program or have started their own customized training programs.

Sasol's culture change

The swift expansion of the US petrochemical industry in the last three years and the aging skilled craft workforce in the construction sector on the U.S. Gulf Coast are also prompting Sasol to ramp up its average annual recruitment from less than a dozen several years ago to thousands over the next few years.

Sasol, which is building an $8.9 billion, 1.5 million tonne per annum (mtpa) cracker and derivatives complex near Lake Charles, Louisiana, expects to hire a total of almost 5,000 construction workers and some 500 full-time employees – a five-fold increase from 2012 – by 2019, when all units on site are scheduled to achieve beneficial operations, Gill said. 

At the end of 2015, Mike Thomas, senior vice president of Sasol North American Operations, said the company plans to give priority to Louisiana workers and businesses for its contracting and procurement needs.

To attract and retain more workers in Louisiana, Sasol created a two-by-two matrix outlining what works and what doesn’t for its project construction workers and full-time operations staff.

On the one hand, local housing was not prepared to receive thousands of new workers and it was difficult to convince many engineers and technical personnel to re-locate from Texas to Louisiana. The company also had to rethink its hiring policies to attract more Millennial workers.

On the other hand, the long-term prospects of working on a multi-year project helped the company attract more construction workers.
In 2015, Sasol hired staffing solutions company TRS Staffing to help it improve its vendor management and on-site recruitment. Sasol also partnered with the Lake Charles mayor and the Louisiana governor to expand its reach to potential workers, veterans and chronically unemployed people at multiple public forums.

In late 2015, the company said it had invested nearly $4 million over the past three years in education, workforce development and small business development signature initiatives, including a regional impact study, a scholarship fund for craft and skills for Westlake and Mossville residents, job resource guides for local residents and businesses, as well as science, technology, engineering and math programs at local schools to prepare young people for future careers in the industry.

Faced with a shortage of qualified candidates, Sasol also started offering retention bonuses.

To help establish itself as the employer of choice in the long run, a year and a half ago, the company took its executives off-site for a week to rethink its company culture. The group agreed on six cultural anchors that will be driven by the company’s executive team.

“If this is an HR activity owning your culture, it will fail. Getting the executive committee to own it with some behind-the-scenes assists from my team and I, that’s the only way it’s going to work,” Gill said.

As part of the process, Sasol also rethought its interview questions and hiring processes – instead of holding day-long sets of panels, it introduced half-day-long sets of panels focused on finding people who fit the company’s long-term organizational culture and vision.

To strengthen its in-house management and training capabilities, Sasol also began recruiting for and hiring supervisors who would become trainers and subject matter experts responsible for designing the training material and procedures for their employees, Gill said.

To preserve the company’s culture and build coherent narratives around it, people managers at the Sasol also began holding monthly “interventions” to discuss the company’s culture and build a bank of stories and information that can be shared across the company over time.