Companies from virtually all segments of the North American petrochemical industry are forecasting growth across the board over the next few years.

More crude production is expected out of Canada and the Permian Basin. More LNG export terminals and the pipelines to supply them are expected to be ready for construction over the next two years.

However, finding the people to build and operate new projects and keep current energy infrastructure online is becoming a struggle at all levels of the workforce, a panel at CERAWeek by S&P Global discussed March 21.

“Some of these numbers might scare you,” said Nikki Martin, president and CEO of EnerGEO Alliance, an organization that supports the energy geoscience and exploration industry. Martin noted that the American Geoscience Institute projected in 2022 that the U.S. will face a shortage of 130,000 geoscientists by 2029.

“If you're looking at these challenges, and you're thinking about the capacity we have to meet the needs of people, we have a big problem,” she said. Geoscience affects all aspects of the energy industry, from the exploration and sustainability for gas and crude to developing aspects such as carbon capture.

The industry is not just facing a shortage of workers with science degrees. The last government survey of the overall energy employment situation showed continued job growth coupled with a lack of qualified workers.

The Department of Energy’s U.S. Energy and Employment Report for 2023 showed an overall growth in the industry of 300,000 workers in 2022, to a total of 8.1 million overall jobs in the industry.

At the same time, more than 80% of energy firms reported “some difficulty” with finding qualified workers, while 48% of non-union firms and 29% of union firms responded that it was “very difficult” to find workers.

The struggle is most acute within the construction segment. The non-union segment reported that almost 60% of firms had a very difficult time staffing projects.

Bechtel, a construction firm that handles large-scale energy projects around the globe, has forecasted a growing problem for projects along the U.S. Gulf Coast. 

“For both our professional staff and our construction craft professionals, the forecast is something we've never seen before since Bechtel’s inception 126 years ago,” said Natalie Wane, global workforce services manager for Bechtel. Wane said her company is forecasting a need for 20,000 craft professionals for projects in the Texas Gulf Coast, while the industry as a whole will need 80,000 craft professionals in the Gulf Coast region over the next two to three years.

Industry analysts believe the current supply in the region is around 40,000 craft professionals.  

“It's absolutely imperative that we build a mitigation program,” Wane said. Bechtel has been pursuing high school students to educate them on construction careers and apprenticeship programs, as well as reaching out to community colleges to recruit more women, who make up only around 4% of construction tradecraft positions.

The recruiting efforts go beyond construction. The American Petroleum Institute has established a curriculum for training people interested in the field, using advice taken from the energy companies the organization works with.

Recruiters often have difficulty with the cultural headwinds from a potential job pool, said Patricia Bailey, director of strategic engagement for Pathways Alliance, a coalition of Canadian energy producers.

Bailey shared a story with the CERAWeek panel about an advertising campaign the organization ran in a Canadian airport.

“The campaign is about oil as the fuel that moves the world,” she said. “Within three weeks of advertising at this big airport, we were banned for life. We weren’t allowed to advertise any more because it was so upsetting to the consumer.”

Panel members spoke of the need to reach out to young people entering the work force. Many job prospects are either unaware of the benefits of a petrochemical career or don’t believe the field will be around much longer.

“Our biggest problem is attracting people to even consider geoscience or frankly any petroleum-related profession as a viable career choice,” Martin said.

“That's largely because we have a perception problem. People do not see this as a long-term, fulfilling career that some people in their late mid-career to late career really know that it is.”