Impact of industrial construction projects being felt

Advocate staff file photo -- Construction of Nucor's direct-reduced iron facility  rises in December above sugar cane fields near Convent. Its one of the many industrial construction projects underway or proposed that are increasing the demand for workers in Louisiana.
Advocate staff file photo -- Construction of Nucor's direct-reduced iron facility rises in December above sugar cane fields near Convent. Its one of the many industrial construction projects underway or proposed that are increasing the demand for workers in Louisiana.

The boom in petrochemical and chemical plant construction, brought on by an ample supply of cheap natural gas, means that there is a major short-term demand across Louisiana for skilled crafts workers.

Similar construction projects in the Southeast, Midwest and Rocky Mountain states means that workers from those areas aren’t available to help out with Louisiana developments, a pair of industrial construction experts said.

Dennis Noland and Debra K. Johnson of Alpha Resources of Birmingham, Ala., said the activity brought on by nuclear power plant projects in the Southeast and the shale boom in the Midwest and Rockies is adding to the pressure Gulf Coast firms are facing to recruit workers.

Noland and Johnson made their comments Thursday night at the Greater Baton Rouge Industry Alliance’s annual Workforce Development Awards, which were held at the Crowne Plaza Hotel.

“A rising tide on the Gulf Coast raises compensation for surrounding areas,” said Johnson.

He noted that wages for welders in Houston have gone up by 8.7 percent this year and more industrial contractors in the Texas city are offering per diem payments to workers coming in from outside the market.

An estimated 86,300 industrial construction workers will be needed in Louisiana by 2016, both to fill new jobs that are created by industrial projects and to make up for the attrition of workers. Of that 20,065 jobs will be needed in the metro Baton Rouge area, 17,814 in New Orleans, 28,284 in Lake Charles, with another 20,137 needed in the rest of the state.

Jorge Tarajano, president and CEO of the Pala Group, a Baton Rouge industrial contractor, said while it looks like the jobs are not arriving quite as fast as originally expected, major expansions continue to be announced.

“It looks like we will have to fill a gap over a longer period of time,” Tarajano said. “The sustained opportunity will be longer.”

Tarajano is a member of a working group of the Louisiana Workforce Investment Council, designed to help the state meet the impending demand for skilled crafts workers.

That group, made up of representatives from business, industry, labor unions and government organizations issued a training plan in June.

The plan includes a number of facets, from making sure that Pell Grants can be used to pay for training classes at community and technical colleges, to having career counselors work with middle and high school students so they consider careers in the industrial construction industry, to getting more state funds to pay for worker training.

“We laid out a blueprint, now we all gotta build that plant,” Tarajano said.

Getting involved in high schools to let students know about the high-wage, high-demand jobs that are out there is part of the key, Tarajano said.

John Pacillo, chairman of the GBRIA board of directors, said the chemical and petrochemical plants that are on the drawing board will get built, either by Louisiana residents or people coming from foreign countries.

“Those plants will get built. They’ll spend that $60 billion to $65 billion. It’s going to happen with our without the involvement of the people of Louisiana who need those jobs,” said Pacillo, operations director at Mexichem Fluor in St. Gabriel. “The plants will get built. You can count on it.”