Union leaders expect membership boost with Shell's Beaver County plant
Union leaders and elected officials in Western Pennsylvania have been hoping for a long time to have this problem.
In about a year and a half, construction of Royal Dutch Shell's much anticipated petrochemical plant in Beaver County will kick into high gear. The multibillion-dollar, multi-year project's demand for 6,000 or more skilled workers for construction starting next year will squeeze the current workforce supply.
“We're going to need workers. We need to make sure we're training them,” Gov. Tom Wolf said last week during one of several roundtable discussions with leaders about the opportunities and challenges the plant will bring.
Leaders of union halls who have watched membership dwindle with fewer projects to attract apprentices and retiring baby boomers welcome the work, which Shell and its contractors have promised to them, despite concerns among some about filling all the jobs.
“It is a great thing,” said Michael McDonald, president of the Beaver County Building & Construction Trades Council, who expects to see years of related development and employment even after construction wraps up in 2021.
“We're always taking educated guesses on how many people to train. If they don't have jobs when you're done, it could backfire,” said Ken Broadbent, business manager of Steamfitters Local 449, who predicted unions will fill all the jobs. “Now we know we'll need more for this.”
McDonald said the Shell project will need between 700 and 800 laborers on site by August 2017. But Laborers Local 833 in Beaver — where McDonald is business manager — has about 400 members “and half are retirees,” he said.
Iron Workers Local No. 3 could provide 700 union members “in a quick pinch,” said business manager Gregory Christy. But Shell's contractors for the project tell him they will need about 1,100 iron workers in early 2018. That's also when they will need 2,100 steamfitters; about 300 of Broadbent's 2,700 members are free to work right now.
“We're not going to be able to man it all with our current membership,” said Christy, whose Strip District-based local is starting a recruitment drive and special training program to bolster its ranks.
Shell's announcement in June that it would move ahead on construction of the ethane cracker it had been considering along the Ohio River in Center and Potter has contractors and union leaders looking at several options to bridge an expected shortage in skilled workers that, when combined with other large construction projects, could reach 10,000 to 15,000 workers.
“What we're looking at in the Northeast is pretty amazing if the projects that are planned continue to go off as scheduled,” said Sam Lyon, global workforce services manager for Bechtel Corp., a lead contractor on the Shell project. At a recent industry conference in Pittsburgh, he said construction of other petrochemical facilities, power plants and pipelines will exacerbate the shortage.
“We're looking at very, very significant demand in the Northeast,” he said at the conference.
Union leaders say they will have enough workers once they add members and reach out to regional networks for help.
“Once people know there's work, they'll come out of the woodwork,” said McDonald, who noted his local can draw from as many as 10,000 laborers in the Western Pennsylvania district and 35,000 across the Mid-Atlantic region.
‘The right people'
Shell, Bechtel and local union employees began working on the cracker site years before the energy giant announced its final decision to build.
The first plant of its type to be built outside the Gulf Coast in decades will take ethane produced by many of the region's Marcellus shale wells and convert it under high heat to polyethylene, a building block of plastics. Because officials believe it will support the shale gas industry and lead to development of related manufacturing projects, lawmakers gave Shell a package of tax breaks and incentives potentially worth more than $1 billion.
Shell agreed to clean up the site that once housed a zinc smelter, reroute Route 18 in the area and to build a bridge over the highway. Shell and Bechtel reached a construction agreement with North America's Building Trades Unions that requires union workers on the project and outlines the settlement of any labor disputes.
Shell declined to answer questions about why it wanted a union agreement. The state Department of Community and Economic Development said Shell worked with unions to develop an agreement “as part of the due diligence period” as the company looked to ensure enough workers for construction.
“We'll have control over local workers. It will be the right people,” McDonald said. He expects prime contractor Great Arrow Builders — a joint venture formed for the project by Bechtel, McCarl's Inc. and Babcock & Wilcox — to announce a superseding labor agreement in November.
Broadbent said the steamfitters already know Shell will require that 20 percent of their workers be apprentices — who make less than journeymen — to reduce costs and encourage on-the-job training.
It also will require union drivers for the 110 buses that will shuttle workers to and from the site around the clock, McDonald said.
Labor agreements lay the groundwork for filling jobs that the local union hall can't, said Bechtel's Lyon, guaranteeing enough trained workers to stay on schedule.
“Initially, we would contact brother locals, sisters in the area,” Christy said. “If we're still unable to fill (the jobs), there's a national hotline. But I don't foresee having to go to the national hotline with what we're planning to do.”
Never too late to train
Next month, the Iron Workers will announce plans for what the union is calling the Creating Futures job training program. Those interested in joining its apprenticeship program can start training two nights a week.
“An individual can keep his or her current job, with no loss of income ... and get a jump-start on learning the trade, hands-on and in class,” Christy said. The union covers the cost of all training.
“It's like going to grad school without coming out with all that debt,” said Danielle Harshman, director of marketing for the Iron Workers.
The union hopes the program will increase the number of workers in its three-year apprenticeship program at its training center in the Strip District.
The Steamfitters are tripling the size of their training program, looking to run three classes of 25 students each through centers in Pittsburgh and Erie and a new $18.5 million facility opening in Jackson at the end of the year. The union also covers the cost of training.
“We've got good jobs for them,” Broadbent said.
Although it takes years to reach the training level at which a member can work on a site such as the Shell cracker, the need for workers is expected to last long enough that more training programs will be beneficial, said Dale Adcox, senior construction consultant at Bentley Systems, a software contractor with Shell.
“I don't think it's ever too late to train,” Adcox said at the recent petrochemical industry conference. He noted a need to attract more workers to replace retirees.
The Shell project should make recruitment easier, especially as related projects take off. McDonald cited a number of hotels and restaurants planned for the vicinity of the plant as examples of more work for his union's members.
“Now we can say there is work as they come in,” Harshman said.
The Iron Workers next month will launch a boosted recruitment drive through various media, billboards and its sponsorships with sports teams. The union expects to shift much of its annual marketing budget to the effort. Christy declined to say how much it will spend.
“We want to reach a target audience where a person feels there's no more ladder to climb. This can be a career, not just another stop,” Harshman said.
David Conti is the assistant business editor at the Tribune-Review. Reach him at 412-388-5802 or firstname.lastname@example.org.