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Overcoming Workforce Challenges Takes Constant Communication

Thursday, August 22, 2019   (0 Comments)
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In October 2009, the U.S. unemployment rate peaked at 10 percent.  Nearly 10 years later, it’s at 3.7 percent – or three-tenths of a percentage point below the 4 percent figure that is considered full employment.  In theory, everyone who wants a job has one.  This leaves the U.S. with a major dilemma – there are over 7 million jobs available and unfilled in the U.S. today.

Many of these jobs are in the construction industry, a business few young people seem attracted to.  According to the Associated General Contractors of America, 70 percent of construction companies are having trouble finding qualified workers.

In an article by John McManus in Builder Magazine, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) surveyed young adults (18 – 25). Seventy-four percent said they knew what career field they wanted to go into, but only 3 percent of those were interested in the construction trades.

A Hard to Fill, Wide Open Job Market
Of that 3 percent interested in the construction trades, how many are aware of careers in the gas and pipeline industry?  Gas distribution is a rapidly growing industry because of the repair and replacement of aging systems and new construction.  There are 2.2 million miles of gas distribution pipelines, much needing replacement.  Most of the work done on the pipeline system is done by skilled labor – pipe welders and fusers, heavy equipment operators and laborers, horizontal directional drill operators, safety, quality and compliance coordinators, and foremen and crew leaders. 
Today, there are roughly 20,000 skilled labor jobs available in gas distribution across the U.S., and between aging systems, new construction, and the fracking-generated American energy boom, the vacancies are likely to grow.  The American Petroleum Institute (API) projects overall industry employment will reach 1.3 million by 2025 and 1.9 million by 2035, and employers will be willing to pay more for skilled workers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that average wages in the natural gas and oil industries currently exceed $100,000 – nearly double the U.S. average.
At this point, the general population is generally unaware of the energy industry.  A recent study by the Center of Energy Workforce Development (CEWD) showed the energy literacy of a high school student at 48 percent on how things work, how the lights come on, how a car runs, how they charge their phone, etc.  Of all the construction trades, the pipeline industry faces an additional unique hurdle that dampens would-be worker enthusiasm: hostile press coverage, negative association with climate change, and distorted facts about energy production and safety.  These hurdles can make attracting new talent harder than ever and especially apply to the underground construction.

Finding the Right People is a Challenge
It’s not enough to just find job-fillers; companies need to find the right people. According to SkillsUSA, 55 percent of employers experience a negative impact due to job vacancies.  Employers need workers with technical knowledge plus the soft skills that apply to any industry – integrity, work ethic, professionalism, responsibility, adaptability, flexibility, self-motivation, but are having a difficult time finding them.  Language barriers are also an issue.  There are smart people available who want to work, but aren’t qualified or can’t pass the testing, especially in the gas industry because of the specialized training.  The good news is that some community colleges have started utility and pipeline training programs, but false guarantees of a job after graduation frequently attract students who may not qualify for other reasons. Drug testing is another common problem.  On average, 30 percent of potential workers fail the drug test.

One factor that can’t be overlooked is how high schools encourage students to go to college as a way of boosting their own rankings.  Many young adults can’t afford college, but don’t realize there are alternatives such as skilled trades.  Others may be put off by the idea of hard work or a dirty job.  A college degree can be accompanied by mountains of student loan debt.   Right now, 44 million borrowers owe around $1.5 trillion.  

According to the BLS and the Economic Policy Institute’s Current Population Survey:
• 43 percent or 16.3 million of all 16-24-year-old kids are not in school.
• 31 percent of high school students don’t attend college, and of those who do go to college, 40 percent don’t finish.
• Of those who do graduate from college, 37 percent are in jobs that only require a high school diploma.  
• The average hourly wage for a college graduate is $20.37 ($42,000 per year).
• Today, over seven million job openings exist in the economy, 75% of which don’t require a college degree.  The average pay for those jobs is $55,000 per year.

According to a study by the Manufacturing Institute, SkillsUSA and The Student Research Foundation, 63% of students enrolled in Career and Technical Education (CTE) courses see their own interests and experiences as a major influence in their career pathway with parents being second at 32%.  35% of CTE students say they have had no contact with potential future employers, with only 12% experiencing a site visit and 20% having a pathway-related summer job.  CTE teachers believe industry-recognized credentials are valuable to students beginning their careers.

Overcoming the Workforce Challenge
The U.S. has an enormous amount market of untapped potential workers, but the pipeline industry needs to do a better job of promoting itself and exposing students, parents and schools early on to the benefits of a career in skilled labor. The message to students, parents, educators, and academic and career counselors is clear and compelling:

• Companies that provide safe, affordable, and reliable energy are crucial to the American economy.
• People employed in the energy industry directly support their communities’ economic growth through work and volunteerism.
• The industry is an exciting place to work as advancements in energy production and delivery are developed to meet customers’ changing energy needs.
• The industry provides stable employment and career growth opportunities to a broad range of skilled workers.  It is committed to workforce diversity and ensuring that their workforce reflects the communities they serve.
• Jobs in energy offer highly competitive and above average pay, as well as opportunities for personal challenge and growth.
• Energy jobs require foundational knowledge, skills, and abilities that are transferrable across states, regions, and other industries.
• Jobs are often filled locally and generally are not threatened by outsourcing or offshoring.
• Jobs are frequently open to job seekers as current employees progress in their careers and retire.

Click for Highlights From John Mcmanus’s Reporting On The Nahb Survey Of Young Adults