Texas' Coastal Bend: Sun, Sea, Sand and Shortage

Texas' Coastal Bend: Sun, Sea, Sand and Shortage
If you have the right skill set, the Coastal Bend of South Texas might be a good place to find steady work in the oil and gas industry.

Mike Scott has a problem that many employers in the United States would envy these days. He is having trouble finding enough qualified workers.

"We are short on every type of craft," said Scott, the co-owner of Corpus Christ, Texas-based H&S Constructors, Inc., which provides construction services for clients in the pipeline, refinery, petrochemical and marine sectors in Texas' 12-county "Coastal Bend" region.

Scott noted that strong demand for skilled workers runs the gamut of specialties. He then ticked off a list of positions that have been hard to fill: estimators, planners, supervisors, welders, pipefitters, electricians, operators, truck drivers, carpenters, millwrights and mechanics.

Demand from the Entire Oil and Gas Value Chain

The tight market for crafts in and around Corpus Christi is no surprise. The region is home to one of the largest ports in the United States, and the area's longstanding upstream and downstream oil and gas sectors are simultaneously enjoying robust growth. On the exploration and production side, extensive field development of the nearby Eagle Ford Shale is restricting the pool of qualified labor to work on pending expansions at area refineries and petrochemical plants. Some of the more prominent downstream projects include:

  • Flint Hills Resources may invest more than $250 million to expand its West Refinery so that it can process more crude oil from the Eagle Ford. According to the company, "Project Eagle Ford" would require approximately 1,000 contractors.
  • M&G Group is building a 1 million-tons-per-annum (mtpa) polythelene terephthalate (PET) plant and an adjacent 1.2-mtpa terephthalic acid (PTA) plant in Corpus Christi. The project is expected to support up to 3,000 construction jobs.
  • Both Cheniere and Pangea LNG are seeking federal permits to build land-based liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals in Corpus Christi and Ingleside, respectively. In addition, Excelerate Energy is pursuing a floating liquefaction project in Lavaca Bay, which is located between Corpus Christi and Galveston. Collectively, the three projects could eventually boast nearly 30 mtpa of LNG production capacity.
  • Mexichem and Occidental Chemical may form a joint venture to build an ethane cracker at the latter company's Ingleside Energy Center. The companies anticipate their feasibility study and basic engineering to be ready for final evaluation in the second quarter of next year. Should Mexichem and OxyChem approve the project, it could begin operations in 2016.
  • NuStar Energy will build a 100,000-barrel oil terminal in the Eagle Ford that will connect to Corpus Christi refineries via existing and new pipeline infrastructure. In addition, NuStar is building a new ship dock in Corpus Christi that link to area refineries. In all, NuStar plans to spend more than $100 million on expansions in the Eagle Ford region.

Major investments such as those in the above list are good news for H&S and other Coastal Bend firms serving the region's downstream sector. Scott admits, however, that competing for workers with very marketable skills who are based in the area is a constant struggle -- for upstream and downstream employers alike.

"Basically all jobs are transferable [from upstream to downstream and vice versa]," said Scott. "It has hit all labor markets very hard. We are not able to hire local people any longer. Our only hope is paying per diem."

Manuel Ugues, business services director with Workforce Solutions of the Coastal Bend, noted that per diems represent one example of incentives that employers are offering to attract qualified people to their companies. Other enticements include sign-on bonuses, housing and transportation assistance and training programs.

"I would say there is a solid overlap between the workforce needs between the upstream and downstream sectors," noted Ugues. "Hiring employers are seeking individuals with multiple talents in order to be able to handle multi-duty assignments. An example is the CDL [commercial driver's license] truck driver who can also help set up and run equipment."

The desire for multi-talented employees is understandable given the surge in Coastal Bend job postings and openings in the past 2 years. As the chart below shows, the numbers of postings and openings more than doubled in 2012 compared to the previous year. (A "posting" refers to a type of job, such as a CDL driver, while an "opening" corresponds to the number of available jobs within a posting.)

Texas' Coastal Bend: Sun, Sea, Sand and Shortage

"When you look at the rest of the U.S. versus Texas, and [the Coastal Bend] versus other parts of Texas, we're thrilled to have this," Monika De La Garza, Workforce Solutions' communications and outreach coordinator, said of the abundance of jobs that the Eagle Ford and downstream investments have generated -- both directly and indirectly.

De La Garza noted that the Coastal Bend's unemployment rate was 5.3 percent in November of this year; that figure is 0.3 percent lower than the rate for October, and it is down 1.5 percent from Nov. 2011. In contrast, Texas' November 2012 unemployment rate was 5.8 percent (down 0.4 percent month-on-month and down 1.4 percent year-on-year). In addition, she noted that the U.S. unemployment rate was 7.4 percent for November (down 0.1 percent from October and down 0.8 percent from Nov. 2011). For more detailed labor market information for Coastal Bend counties, click here.

Developing Local Talent

H&S and other local firms are actively engaged in efforts to expand the available local pool of skilled workers. Through the Texas Coastal Bend chapter of the Associated Builders and Contractors, companies such as Scott's participate in craft and apprenticeship training programs through the Craft Training Center of the Coastal Bend.

"We currently have about 300 in training and we have just broken ground to double our size," said Scott. "Depending on the choice for a job, you can go to school at night two nights a week and be a fully certified journeyman in two to four years making $30-plus an hour."

Another Coastal Bend entity working to ease the region's shortage of skilled workers is Corpus Christi-based Del Mar College, which trains approximately 6,000 students each year in occupational and short-term training programs.

"Del Mar College is making Eagle Ford Shale and its impact on downstream employers a top priority," said Mark Escamilla, the community college's president. "The college has ramped up credit and non-credit classes that directly target their needs. Students can complete associate degree and certificate plans quickly to fill positions offered by primary as well as secondary employers in the Coastal Bend."

Escamilla said Del Mar's Business, Professional and Technology Education Division trains students to obtain certificates and associate degrees that focus on skill sets that area Eagle Ford and downstream employers are demanding. He said that some of the division's programs include architectural drafting/technology, chemical laboratory technology, industrial machining technology, logistics and supply chain management, non-destructive testing, occupational safety and health, process technology and welding applied technology.

"These are in-demand, industry-specific programs that potential employees can complete in a few months or a year," continued Escamilla. "The college has significantly increased offerings in short-term certifications. For example, the intermediate welding certificate prepares individuals with just 24 credits for entry-level positions."

Demand is also keen for CDL drivers, and the college's transportation department has responded by adding training simulators. The new technology will enable the department to triple the number of CDL students it can serve.

"Del Mar College works with industry to ensure curriculum is up to date with current needs," said Mary Afuso, the college's director of corporate services. "The college provides customized training to individual companies, applying for training funds through the State of Texas, the 4-A Board and the Department of Labor so that we can serve industry. We're constantly looking at ways to be more responsive to the community."

Outsiders Welcome, Too

The efforts to build the local skilled workforce notwithstanding, individuals from outside the Coastal Bend area are welcome in the region as well. Ugues and Scott noted that individuals from outside the region who possess the desired skills and who can pass drug testing and background checks should give serious thought to opportunities in the region.

"With the vast options in the actual exploration and extraction, transportation, logistics, and service support jobs, and a need for workers, I would have a good chance of offering my skills and talent at a good rate of pay," said Ugues. "In addition, the cost of living is lower than most states, the cultural experience is inviting, the weather is enjoyable during the winter, the fishing is second-to-none, school systems are competitive, quality of life is great, and the people are friendly."

"There are plenty of contractors here in the Corpus Christi area and they are always looking for good people," concluded Scott. "[T]here are endless opportunities in this area for people that want to work and make good money."

If you'd like to investigate Coastal Bend oil and gas job listings, check out upstream opportunities in Rigzone's Career Center and downstream openings in the DownstreamToday Career Center.

Matthew V. Veazey has written about the upstream and downstream O&G sectors for more than a decade. Email Matthew at mveazey@downstreamtoday.com. Twitter: @MatthewVVeazey