Attention job-seekers: Are you looking for a well-paying job in a growing U.S. manufacturing industry sector poised to become a key exporter? Do you enjoy math and science and working with sophisticated technology? Can you thrive in a dynamic and sometimes stressful team environment? If you answered "yes" to these questions, a career in petrochemicals may be for you.
Thanks to vast new supplies of inexpensive feedstocks from domestically produced natural gas, U.S. petrochemical plants are increasingly enjoying a cost advantage compared to facilities elsewhere in the world. As a result, the domestic petrochemicals sector is poised to invest more than $16 billion in new manufacturing capacity. A March 2011 American Chemistry Council (ACC) report conservatively estimates this industrywide expansion could spur the creation of roughly 200,000 new jobs in the U.S.
One can expect attractive earnings from these jobs as well. The Texas City, Texas-based College of the Mainland, which hosts the Center for Advanced Process Technology and maintains close ties with major petrochemicals players, states on its website that an entry-level process technician with an associate's degree can command $55,000 to $65,000 per year. A plant operator's pay can approach $90,000 when overtime and holiday pay are included. According to recent salary figures from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, new entrants to that field typically earn approximately $67,000. The median salary for chemical engineers in the U.S. is $110,000.
"It's a return to investment in new facilities that we've not seen since roughly 1990 [in the U.S.]," said IHS Chemical Chief Advisor Gary Adams, speaking on the sidelines of IHS World Petrochemicals conference last week in Houston. "With that investment comes significant job growth."
Adams noted the initial wave of job demand skews toward construction, with a large push for electricians, code welders, instrument technicians and other construction trades. The skill sets that these individuals possess largely overlap those needed to build offshore oil and gas infrastructure such as pipelines and extraction facilities. Adams pointed out this can be problematic for developers of upstream and downstream projects because they are seeking the same workers.
"I think the challenge for our industry is going to be similar to the challenges that we're seeing in the demand for skilled workers in the exploration and production side," Adams said. "We're competing for some of the same labor."
The competition with E&P project developers notwithstanding, the U.S. petrochemical sector also needs to find the right people within this pool of skilled labor, Adams added. Petrochemical plants, like offshore platforms, are highly sophisticated facilities that need to be built to exacting standards to ensure safe operations. Recalling a high-level meeting with company executives making major capital investments at last week's conference, Adams said that some company officials expressed concerns about finding enough skilled workers who can build these facilities to such demanding specifications. Once a facility has been commissioned and operations have commenced, petrochemical manufacturers need skilled workers such as process operators and chemical engineers who can properly run these facilities.
In the Gulf Coast region, an established petrochemicals hub, major players in the industry have long partnered with secondary and post-secondary schools to develop training programs to supply new process operators and other employees necessary to keep their plants running. Western Pennsylvania and other regions that are poised to become new focus areas for the petrochemicals industry, thanks to their proximity to the Marcellus and Utica shale gas plays as well as end markets, do not enjoy this long history but present opportunities for industry and schools to forge similar partnerships.
Regardless of the amount of time either region has hosted petrochemicals facilities, the industry will need to get students interested in pursuing careers in process operations, chemical engineering and related fields. Adams believes that seeing the ample opportunities for job and career growth and development will go a long way in stoking that interest.
"If you're interested in trade skills, if you're interested in technical skills, if you're interested in engineering, there's some real opportunity here in the U.S.," Adams concluded.
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Working in the Petrochemical Industry
Matthew V. Veazey has written about the upstream and downstream O&G sectors for more than a decade. Email Matthew at email@example.com.