According to Steve Skarke, executive vice president for Kaneka Corp., the petrochemical industry’s workforce of the future is going to be filled with folks who are “much more technically savvy than they have been in the past.”

“When you look at what they have to deal with — huge amounts of information coming in — they have to be able to quickly process and make decisions,” Skarke said.

Industry leaders also recognize the need to recruit a diverse and more gender-balanced workforce for the industry.

“In our technology programs at San Jacinto College, female enrollment is at 13 percent, so it’s improving,” said Jim Griffin, San Jacinto College associate vice chancellor and senior vice president for the college’s petrochemical training division. “That is about double from what it was five years ago, but we’ve got a long way to go.”

As moderator of a panel at the Gulf Coast Industry Forum held recently in Pasadena, Texas, Griffin asked panelists to describe effective techniques for attracting new hires for careers requiring an interest in technology, chemistry, physics and math.

James Rhame, vice president of polymers for Flint Hills Resources, said he likes to share “how great a life I have had being in this industry. That is the best way I know to describe it to people.”

Skarke added he points out the many ways the stability of the industry translates to personal stability, providing “the potential for growth and, for them, the potential for personal growth to be able to have a career, to do things that you would never be able to do otherwise, to provide for your family, to have that good work/life balance — just to have the life that you’ve always dreamed of.”

Rhame noted the power of reputation and word-of-mouth recommendation can’t be underestimated.

“I think, ultimately, we need a community that is proud of the industry and recommends family and friends to come work at good jobs without having a four-year degree,” he said. “You’ll hear companies talk about sustainability and making sure we are good neighbors, that people want us in their back yards. They know it’s a safe place to work, where they make a good living and, in turn, provide for their families.”

Replacing the retiring workforce

Jeff Garry, operations director for The Dow Chemical Company, observed that within the past five years, the industry has experienced a considerable uptick in the number of individuals retiring.

“There are a lot of retirements, and we’ve had to hire at higher-than-normal rates,” he said. “It looked very daunting five years ago. The encouraging thing is, though, we’re working our way through that.”

Garry said he expects this retirement surge to continue well into the 2020s.

“When you look at the demographics of our workforce, on the operator side as well as maintenance and construction, I think for the next five to eight years we’re still going to be at a really high rate,” he said. “It’s going to continue as a challenge for us, especially when you add on the construction boom because of the shale gas advantage here [in the Gulf Coast region]. The demand is super high, especially on the construction and craft side.”

Skarke agreed the workforce void left by retirees is an ongoing threat to the industry that must be aggressively addressed.

“I’m looking ahead five to 10 years, when a lot of us may not be here,” he said. “How are we going to hand that off to the next generation? Who is going to be stepping up to take over? It’s got to be seamless, it’s got to be safe and we’ve got to have the right culture and keep the same standards, but elevate those standards.

“It’s up to us to do that,” Skarke concluded. “We are the leadership, and we’ve got to develop those who are coming behind us. I think that’s our challenge.”

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