HOUSTON, TX--The welding class at San Jacinto College doesn’t get out until 2 a.m. Demand has ballooned so much in recent months among day workers looking to tap into the booming petrochemical industry that the school recently opened the graveyard shift course.
A dozen miles northeast in Baytown, Lee College is piloting a weekend welding degree program in an attempt to keep up with need.
Several years ago, companies like ExxonMobil announced they would need to hire upwards of 50,000 workers over the next decade. The strong economy has led to plant expansions in this oil-rich metropolis at the same time that companies feel the effects of an education strategy that pivoted sharply away from vocational and technical training in the 1990s. Baby boomers are retiring and companies are struggling to find qualified young people who can fill their slots. That’s partly the result of an education system that has lasered in on college preparedness.
While high schools in the area are beginning to reintroduce and rethink technical courses, the efforts are new enough that any immediate impact is limited, and companies have turned to playing offense when it comes to attracting workers.
So in a somewhat unusual (although less so at the community college-level) show of collaboration, industry and academia are talking. The result in south Texas is the Community College Petrochemical Initiative, a collection of schools in the Gulf Coast region making a concerted effort to understand and respond to shifting workforce needs. Hence the welding classes at odd hours. ExxonMobil will contribute more than a million dollars over several years to the program, in part because it needs the region to produce more qualified workers or the company will have to look elsewhere to meet demand.