Energy revolution demands skilled labor
We are in the middle of a great 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 is becoming our nation’s ticket to energy dominance.
The impact of shale development has made the U.S. the top producer of oil and natural gas in the world. Two decades ago, our nation was staring down a potential energy crisis, but now we are a world energy leader.
From the Barnett Shale, Eagle Ford Shale and Permian Basin in Texas to the SCOOP and STACK plays in Oklahoma, the southern region tops the charts with the highest number of oil barrels per day and a huge supply of natural gas liquids to fuel manufacturing growth.
The shale revolution is entering a new stage of maturity, and we must be prepared. These massive energy plants are on a construction scale we haven’t seen in generations.
Are we prepared for such massive scales of construction amid a skilled labor shortage, especially in the southern region? With a wave of baby boomer retirements, workers who switched careers during the recession and a young generation that is not considering construction as a viable career option, contractors are reporting a severe skilled labor shortage in the South.
Such a shortage could lead to higher prices and longer construction schedules. Three out of 4 construction firms are concerned 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?
In the South, contractors are scrambling to find skilled labor to man these massive energy plants, but they are overlooking the main source of skilled labor: the building trades. Many contractors are facing delays and having to rework projects while the answer to their crisis is within reach.
The building trades have always maintained a healthy supply of job-ready, skilled, safe workers. They are equipped to face the challenge. They produce skilled workers through comprehensive training, innovative diversity and worker-retention measures, 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 training centers collectively spend between $80 million and $90 million a year in apprenticeship and upgrade training.
But the building trades cannot do it alone. They need support to sustain a healthy supply of skilled labor. They need continued support from the Department of Labor and the Trump administration for their apprenticeship programs.
President Donald 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.
The biggest reason for the construction industry’s skilled labor vacuum, which resulted from baby boomers exiting the workforce, is a lack of awareness and planning to build a pipeline of workers. First, we need to stop telling our young people their only path to success is a four-year college degree.
Nontraditional career paths are not often presented as viable and lucrative alternatives to college for young people graduating from high school, who are not often well-informed about nontraditional career alternatives.
According to the Labor Department, 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.
We need to change the narrative about careers in the skilled trades and retool the existing workforce. The clock is ticking on this coming tsunami of workforce demand. We must be prepared to meet the demand to keep the momentum toward U.S. energy dominance going.
Lee Worley is executive director of apprenticeship and training for the Iron Workers union. Contact him at 202-383-4889 or firstname.lastname@example.org.