Educators from all over Southeast Texas gathered in Houston this month to talk with leaders in the petrochemical and construction industries about improving their collaborative efforts to put people to work in high-paying careers.
“Our regional economy is dynamic and ever-changing,” said Brazosport College President Millicent Valek as she kicked off the 2018 Regional Faculty Summit presented by the Greater Houston Partnership’s Upskill Houston, the Community College Petrochemical Initiative, and PetrochemWorks. It was also supported by supported by JPMorgan Chase, the United Way of Greater Houston, Philips 66, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, and Educate Texas.
“The residents we serve are so important as resources in our regional economy,” Valek said, arguing that instructors at community colleges represent “where the rubber meets the road” when it comes to putting their students to work.
Educators must “think differently about how we educate and train,” Valek said, adding “the biggest reward that faculty and educators receive is knowing that the talent they’re preparing have a chance to go into industries where they can make a living wage and prosper and have a better life.”
“Our region’s community college teaching faculty play a critical role in helping students succeed and ensuring businesses have the skilled workers they need,” said Peter Beard, Sr Vice President of Workforce Development at the GHP.
“The Regional Faculty Summit engaged industry leaders to share with faculty the key trends in industry and, more importantly, what it takes to have a successful career in petrochemical manufacturing or industrial construction,” Beard told Construction Citizen. “UpSkill Houston believes that the Regional Faculty Summit highlights how industry and education leaders are partnering in new and innovative ways to strengthen our regional talent pipeline.”
Also on hand for the conference were Lewis Brown and Lindsay Hayes with The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, or CAEL, gathering feedback from educators and industry folks about how they can build on the early success of the PetrochemWorks website.
Throughout the day, educators interacted with industry professionals so that both sides of the equation could learn how to strengthen their relationships by focusing on three key things:
- Engaging industry leaders to provide the strategic context for the talent challenges the industry faces along with emerging solutions
- Engaging subject matter experts to provide faculty and educators with insights about talent management and development challenges the industry faces and some of the tools and approaches used to address those challenges
- Zeroing in on improvement opportunities to strengthen the ability for college programs to address industry's relevant talent management challenges.
During multiple panel discussions, the Petrochemical Initiative was described as one of the best ways to bring owners of projects and contractors together.
“If you got no owner, you got no contractor,” said Barry Babyak, who just recently retired as President at Austin Industrial. “The industry problems are the same. We’re doing a lot of good with that initiative,” Babyak said. “It’s been a very refreshing thing for me to experience.”
Babyak said community colleges need to do a better job of offering an on-the-job training experience. “That’s the kind of help we need from you,” he said. Babyak said students need a sense of what a “day in the life” is like on a jobsite.
Bob Catudal, Baytown Chemical Plant Site Manager with ExxonMobil, said the increased cooperation under the initiative has already been fruitful. “There’s a lot of value that we see getting together with the community colleges and the high schools,” Catudal said. He said students are starting to understand the opportunities available to them. “It’s more than a living wage,” he said. “It’s an outstanding wage.”
Catudal said that even though automation of certain jobs has created changes in the workforce landscape, “there’s only so much you can do with automation and at some point you still need people.”
“It’s kind of funny most kids today have never really seen a wrench or a screwdriver and all they know is their cell phone and a mouse,” Catudal said. He and others stressed that general life skills are essential – and it’s an area in which community colleges can offer real value to students and employers. It might seem very basic, Catudal said, but “one of the most important things is learning to show up for work on time.”
Punctuality coupled with the ability to pass a drug test will get more students in the door than almost anything else, Catudal and others said. “It’s really hard to get a job anywhere if you can’t pass a drug test.”
Stephen Hillier with Jacobs Engineering noted there is a 15-year gap between those who will retire and those who will follow in their footsteps. “We’re losing institutional knowledge,” he said. Hillier and others made clear that young people need to be able to learn from those who have had success in the industry because it reinforces the fact that a career path is available. “If you can put more folks in front of them that have come through the trades…that’s what keeps them motivated,” Hillier said.
During another panel discussion, Mike Stilley of S&B Engineers and Constructors and Jaime Ortegon with Chevron Phillips Chemical Company agreed that all too often, applicants don’t know quite how to sell themselves to the people who might hire them.
“They don’t know how to present themselves. They don’t know how to approach us in this industry,” Stilley said. The folks hired by S&B tend to be those who might not consider themselves the “best and brightest, necessarily, but those that match up with what we do every day.”
“Let’s be honest with our applicants,” Stilley said. “Let’s tell them ‘this is what the expectations are for the job you’re looking at,’” he said. A failure to realistically set expectations only creates more turnover for employers after many new hires figure out the industry isn’t for them. “Turnover costs us a lot of money,” Stilley said. “On average, about $1,200 per person.”
Many of the educators in attendance told Construction Citizen it was refreshing to have such open and honest conversations with the people who will eventually hire many of their students. In one such exchange, Stilley was asked by an educator whether he would be more interested in hiring a veteran than someone who has an associate degree.
Admitting that it might not make him the most popular person in the room, Stilley said “I would probably look closely at the veteran over the person with an associate’s degree.” He said the person with military experience is going to be disciplined, understand the importance of training, and already have real world experience.
“It’s proven leadership,” Stilley said.