Craft labor in demand for chemical project wave

With dozens of announced and proposed chemical projects in this corner of Appalachia, an estimate by Bechtel Corp. shows the region will need up to 15,000 more craft laborers than it currently has.

At the Northeast U.S. & Canada Petrochemical Construction Conference, an industry event that filled to capacity a room at the Downtown Marriott earlier this week — Royal Dutch Shell was on the menu — this was ubiquitously considered a great problem.

“These are the types of challenges that we live for,” said Sam Lyon, global workforce services manager for Bechtel.

Bechtel is the engineering, procurement and construction contractor for the Beaver County ethane cracker, a multibillion-dollar megaproject that Shell recently announced would move forward after five years of capturing the region’s hopes and frustrations. The plant will “crack” ethane, a natural gas liquid found in the Marcellus and Utica shales, into ethylene, a building block of the chemical industry.

When construction begins in about 18 months, Bechtel and mechanical contractor McCarl’s Inc. will oversee it under a joint venture formed last September called Great Arrow Builders.

But Shell’s plant won't be the only game in town, Mr. Lyon said.

Besides the two other crackers on the table — PTT Global Chemical will say “yay” or “nay” on an ethane cracker in Belmont County, Ohio, early next year, and Braskem and Odebrecht are still weighing the option of building one in Parkersburg, W.Va — a number of chemical additions and expansions in this region will keep the local workforce busy enough to call for reinforcements from across the country, Mr. Lyon said.

“For skilled labor, wages are going to go up,” predicted Jeff Burd, founder of the construction industry analysis outfit Tall Timber Group.

That will be across the board, because contractors not involved in the cracker or other chemical projects will be competing with them for workers.

Mr. Lyon said compensation is the obvious way of getting an edge on the competition, but there are other methods to become the “project of choice” when the labor grab hits in the next few years.

Opportunities for overtime will help attract travelers. Good project management will mean having the right safety culture, equipment and permits in hand to ensure as little downtime as possible.

Mr. Lyon said as part of Bechtel’s general foreman training, workers are trained to have a “plan B and a plan C” in case things break or barriers derail a task.

“Nobody likes standing around,” he said.

That’s what about 600 Pittsburgh-area electricians are doing right about now, said Gary Groom, CEO of Sargent Electric, a Strip District-based union contractor that has been working on the Shell site upgrading utility infrastructure.

“There just hasn’t been enough quality work to get them off the bench,” he said.

The last time Sargent did a so-called megaproject was when it had about 1,200 electricians helping to expand a BP refinery in Indiana.

That project ended in 2013 and many of those workers have since retired, Mr. Groom said.

Recruiting apprentices may be a lot easier after Shell’s announcement, he said, but any project of this scope will cap the proportion of newly-minted workers.

Plus, there’s the challenge of getting apprentices on-the-job training before the major projects hit, Mr. Burd noted.

Mr. Lyon said of all the craft labor jobs, pipefitters will be at the top of the shortage list. Welders and operators will follow.

The local boilermakers unions have about 1,500 workers, said Mark Angle, president of the Boilermakers Local 154 in Pittsburgh, who estimates that Shell alone will need about 400 at its peak.

The steamfitters will see the biggest demand, he projected, with about 2,500 needed to staff the project at its peak.

And while unions do sometimes share workers in a pinch, the expected industrial activity will leave borrowing pools empty.

“We can't really throw 1,000 to them,” Mr. Angle said.

Anya Litvak: or 412-263-1455.

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