Training innovations could bring relief for looming petrochemical workforce gap

More effective external training programs and in-house knowledge transfer initiatives could help companies cut costs, boost productivity and build long-term skill pipelines.

Credit: paparazzit

The steep expansion of the U.S. petrochemical industry in the last three years and the aging skilled craft workforce in the construction sector are prompting owners, service companies and industry associations to rethink their training programs to deliver more value with less, and reduce labor costs.

“We need more training capacity. That’s the challenge for sure,” said Raymond Neck Jr., training manager at Turner Industries Group, LLC, a U.S.-based construction company with about 19,000 workers.

Getting the training right, industry experts agree, could be the key to increasing project efficiency and productivity, and relieving the pressure on the sector’s shrinking pool of skilled welders, pipefitters, crane operators and other craftspeople with the right specializations and practical experience to ensure petrochemical projects are completed safely within budget and on time.

The quality and availability of training certification and career education resources has improved markedly since the early 1990s as petrochemical owners and contractors have become more involved. NCCER's training module completion rate, for example, grew more than 2,000% between 1995 and 2013, according to the National Center for Construction Education and Research (NCCER), which trains in 5,000-6,000 locations across the United States and is expanding globally into areas such as South America.

The NCCER has seen a 12% to 25% annual improvement in the rate of productivity, rework, absenteeism, turnover and safety with every year of additional education and training in the skilled craft trades. A four-year training typically results in about 50% improvement in productivity across the board, according to Steve Greene, vice president of NCCER.

Contractor associations like the Associated Builders and Constructors (ABC) and the Associated General Contractors (AGC), along with several innovative service companies, have been investing heavily over the years to attract and train both entry-level and experienced workers. 

But increasing the capacity of these training programs to meet higher demands would require companies to release their workers to undergo day-time training, according to Don Whyte, president of the NCCER. The challenge for the industry is to find more efficient ways to train its welders, pipefitters and crane operators along project completion.

“The issue today is not as much capacity like it was 20 years ago, the issue today is commitment and will from the industry to get these trainers into the workers programmes,” Whyte added.

In-house Knowledge Transfer Programs

These craft training facilities and programs form a crucial part of the industry's training infrastructure, but the traditional evening and weekend classes are not every company’s optimal strategy.

Contractors with big projects seeking to get more from craft training could invest in their own in-house training programs and facilities to grow domestic talent and build long-term knowledge pipelines. 

Indeed, the most successful and innovative construction services providers in the United States are developing comprehensive knowledge transfer programs, which shift knowledge from senior employees and managers to younger generations, and leverage organizational expertise and best practices across the business.

Contractors that actively develop their workforce report a higher level of productivity than those that do not, according to a five-year study by the Construction Industry Institute. The research indicates that a 1% increase of a contractor’s training budget translates into an estimated 11% improvement rate in productivity for capital projects.

The Industrial Company (TIC), a direct-hire heavy industrial contractor with more than 6,000 employees all over the United States, runs an award-winning in-house training program in its own facility in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Instead of training entry-level workers on the job site along project completion, TIC brings trainees to its training center for three weeks over four consecutive years. This more focused and condensed training allows workers to accumulate the NCCER-required hours of classroom and lab training in a much shorter timeframe and take that knowledge back to the job. 

Last year, TIC trained about 650 workers, a 15-20 % increase from previous years, according to Jeff Rodenberg, the TIC Training Center's director. At an annual cost of about $12,000 per trainee – to cover flights, living expenses, hotel, wages and per diem back home – the training comes at a very hefty price. Yet, Rodenberg says the program is integral to the company’s long-term business strategy to attract new employees, retain current workers, and increase the productivity and skills of its craft workforce. 

“For us it builds long-term employees because these craftsmen, these pipefitters or welders, they fully realize that this company has just invested $50,000 in them over four years and taught them a trade. For us, they are more likely to stay with us,” Rodenberg said.

Such comprehensive training programs also help the bottom line in the long term. TIC’s fourth-year electrical students, for example, have over 90% pass rate on state electrical licenses, compared to a national average of around 50-60%, according to Rodenberg. 

Smaller classes, dedicated full-time instructors and the latest RMD and Pulsed MIG processes allow training instructors at TIC’s facility, for example, to train welders much more quickly than in more traditional evening or weekend classes. Furthermore, paid training programs like TIC’s, as opposed to the more frequent voluntary training, provide workers with a more robust skills progression program.

Learning and development professionals agree that the training focus in the industry should no longer be on continuing education, but instead on lifelong learning. Long-term training strategies like TIC’s shift the company’s focus from single continuing education events, like a public training class, or a one-shot effort at lowering costs, to a more comprehensive professional development model that changes as the organization’s needs grow. 

By Nadya Ivanova