We are in the midst of a great American shale revolution. For the first time in decades, the U.S. is holding its own against OPEC and Russia, going from energy importer to energy exporter. Unlocking previously inaccessible shale reservoirs deep underground using hydraulic fracturing technology is becoming our nation’s ticket to energy dominance.
The impact of shale development has now propelled America to become the top producer of oil and natural gas in the world, with a huge supply of natural gas liquids to fuel manufacturing growth. Two decades ago, our nation was staring down a potential energy crisis, but is now a world energy leader.
The shale revolution is entering a new stage of maturity, and we must be prepared.
Much-needed energy infrastructure is coming to the mid-Atlantic region, but more pipelines are still needed. A multitude of petrochemical companies are moving to the “power region” – Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia – to capitalize on access to markets and abundant supply of valuable natural gas liquids. One large ethane cracker plant is already under construction by Shell in Monaca, and another one is on the verge of being approved in Shadyside, Ohio. There’s a possibility that two more could be on the horizon. These mega-projects have the potential to create new industry clusters, something we haven’t seen in generations.
In addition to infrastructure, another critical need to support this new stage of shale development is skilled labor. With a wave of baby-boomer retirements, workers who switched careers during the recession and a younger generation that is not considering construction as a viable career option, contractors and end users are reporting a skilled labor shortage. Such a shortage could lead to higher prices and longer construction schedules. In fact, three out of four construction firms are showing concern about finding hourly craftworkers over the next year. But is there such a desperate lack of skilled labor or is the panic due to a disconnect somewhere between supply and demand?
Regardless of contractors’ concerns about a lack of skilled labor, the building trades have always maintained a healthy supply of job-ready, skilled workers who are well-equipped to accept this challenge. While others struggle to meet the demand, the building trades prepare workers through training, earn-while-you-learn apprenticeship programs, innovative measures to improve diversity and worker retention, and fair wages. They invest in comprehensive training, including in-depth safety training, saving time and money for contractors and end users. A safe workforce reduces injuries, fatalities and costly delays, adding up to huge cost savings. For example, the Iron Workers (IW) training centers collectively invest between $80 million and $90 million a year in apprenticeship and journeyman upgrade training, and the IW-earn-while-you-learn, three-year apprenticeship program averages 3,000 to 6,000 graduates a year.
The trades cannot do it alone. We need support to sustain a healthy supply of skilled labor from the Department of Labor and Trump administration. President Trump recently announced plans to make expansion of apprenticeship programs the center of his labor policy. We need the administration to keep that promise to fund apprenticeship programs, as they are the “bread and butter” of maintaining a healthy supply of skilled workers.
One of the biggest reasons for the construction industry’s skilled labor vacuum that resulted from baby boomers exiting the workforce is the lack of awareness and a plan to build a pipeline of workers. First, we need to stop telling our young people that their only path to success is a four-year college degree.
Regrettably, nontraditional career paths often are not presented as viable and lucrative alternatives to college for young people graduating from high school. They are not often well-informed about nontraditional career alternatives. According to the DOL, 87 percent of apprentices are employed after completing their programs with an average starting wage above $50,000. Earn-while-you-learn apprenticeship programs in the trades allow high school graduates to make a decent living while being trained for a lifelong career, as opposed to accruing college debt for four years with no promise of a career afterwards.
We simply need to do better at promoting vocational and technical training at the middle and high school levels and provide young people with choices and information, so that they can find lucrative and satisfying careers. We need to change the narrative about careers in the skilled trades. We need to retool the existing workforce. We also need more leaders like Gov. Tom Wolf who, earlier this month, reaffirmed his commitment to invest in the Pennsylvania workforce.
The clock is ticking to handle this impending tsunami of workforce demand. We must be prepared to meet the demand to keep the momentum going toward U.S. energy dominance.
Greg Christy is the Iron Workers Great Lakes District Council President. He can be reached at GChristy@iwintl.org or by calling 724-229-1100.