When asked how they develop relationships with the communities in which their companies operate, chemical executives often mention their investments—sometimes quite large ones—in programs at nearby technical schools and community colleges.
In addition to making for great headlines, investing in education creates a connection with communities and helps train potential future employees. Shell Chemical’s recent investment in a community college in western Pennsylvania and Dow’s introduction of an apprenticeship program in West Virginia’s Kanawha Valley illustrate the increasing importance of training as jobs become more technically challenging.
In the name of community outreach, chemical firms invest in education
Last year, the Community College of Beaver County (CCBC) received $1 million from Shell in support of the college’s process technology program. The donation will establish the Shell Center for Process Technology Education, which will include a 1,115 m2 facility with laboratory space and model distillation and reactor units. Shell and other local manufacturers will have access to the facility to train their own workers.
The chemical company is building a $6 billion ethylene cracker less than 5 mi (about 8 km) from the college. It intends to create 600 full-time jobs and wants to hire locally, says Michael Marr, external relations adviser for Shell Pennsylvania Chemicals, the Shell division that is building the cracker. That will require some training.
“Having a local pipeline of workers is very important to us,” Marr says. “You can import workers from all over the country and all over the world, but if you are not seen as a local employer, you are not going to be as valued to the region.”
But times have changed in the industrial landscape outside Pittsburgh, as have the industries that define it. “There is a big difference between what it used to take to get on the ground floor in a steel mill versus what it takes to get considered for a job with Shell or a company like Shell today,” Marr says. A generation or two ago, people got their foot in the door through friends or family. “You’d start at the lower rung, and through training and osmosis, you’d work your way up,” he says. “Here, you have to come into these jobs with a highly credentialed skill set.”
Typically, companies require a 2-year associate’s degree in process technology. And with the new technology center, “I can tell you about where you can get the 2-year degree,” Marr says. “It’s right down the road.”
John S. Goberish, dean of CCBC’s School of Industrial Technology and Continuing Education, says the college connected with Shell in 2012. Shell’s announcement of the cracker project prompted the school to develop a new curriculum for process technology, he says. Goberish and others from the department traveled to Houston, Texas, to visit similar colleges to see how they coordinate with local industry on workforce development.
CCBC is hoping to elevate process technology as a career option, Goberish says. Shell is a potential employer, as are other local industries that have similar workforce needs, including specialty chemicals, oil and gas, renewable energy, nuclear energy, pharmaceutical, and the drastically downsized but now high-tech steel industry near Pittsburgh.
The process technology program hopes to revitalize a storied local workforce. “We have had almost two generations in which this type of work was not seen by young people,” Goberish says.
Workforce training is a concern nationwide, notes Don Light, head of Dow’s apprenticeship program in the Kanawha Valley. Dow, along with Alcoa and Siemens, launched apprenticeship pilots in 2014 as part of an Obama administration program.
As homework, Dow executives took a 3-week trip to Germany, a country renowned for its industrial apprenticeships. The firm launched its first US program on the Gulf Coast and followed with apprenticeships in Midland, Michigan; Carrollton, Kentucky; and the Kanawha Valley. In the Kanawha Valley, five apprentices were recently accepted into a 3-year program that begins at BridgeValley Community and Technical College in South Charleston, a former Union Carbide technology center, and ends with a job at Dow.
In essence, Dow hires the apprentices at the start. In addition to paying for tuition, books, and a laptop, Dow pays apprentices a 40 h per week salary through the 3-year program. They graduate with a 2-year associate’s degree in process technology and agree to work for Dow for at least 2 years.
The firm’s workforce has changed drastically since Light began working at its South Charleston plant in 1987, he says. The company, Union Carbide at the time, hired about 40 people that year. “Now it’s more piecemeal,” Light says. With the rapid rise of information technology and robotics on-site and a general downsizing of operations over the past decade, the firm needs fewer employees. Those that are hired require training on new technologies. And the demand for trained workers is increasing.
“I would guess that a quarter of our workforce in the valley is 62 or older,” Light says. “The whole purpose of the apprenticeship program is to try to prepare for when those folks decide they may want to retire. We need to be proactive. We need to have people identified, trained, and ready to take their place.”
A program that receives about 125 applications for 5 or 6 apprenticeships won’t put much of a dent in the Kanawha Valley’s high unemployment rate. But a broader effort is underway, including the West Virginia Manufacturers Association’s Explore the New Manufacturing initiative, which works to connect industry with community colleges and technical schools like BridgeValley and with training programs in high schools. Explore ultimately wants to reach middle and high school students with a message about employment opportunity.
Monica Cross, the initiative’s program director, says the challenge facing industry is not so much finding students ready to step up to the technical complexity of contemporary plant operations as it is competing with opportunities outside manufacturing. The 4-year college degree has eclipsed the 2-year technical-school associate’s degree as a road to employment in the minds of students, she says. Many high school graduates leave West Virginia, she says, and many that remain founder, sometimes under the influence of opioids.
Cross, a West Virginia native whose father was a coal miner, sees raising the profile of jobs in local industry, including the chemical industry that dominates in her state, as the way forward. “We have a skills gap because we have an interest gap,” she says. “We have an interest gap because of an awareness gap.”