Mahoning Valley looks to fill need for skilled workers

By Tom McParland


The developing Utica Shale play has brought plenty of commercial interest to the Mahoning Valley, as construction and manufacturing companies look to provide the infrastructure necessary to capture and transport natural gas.

But the rising demand for skilled workers in the Valley has shown that there aren’t enough trained laborers available to meet the need.

The skills gap, as it’s called, is the result of an aging workforce and a shift in educational emphasis, and local unions, schools and training centers are trying to close it as quickly as possible.

One answer to the problem comes in the form of apprenticeships offered at local unions such as Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 396 on Bev Road in Boardman.

Local 396 offers a five-year program that combines classroom instruction with on-the-job training. Apprentices attend classes two nights a week, while also working in the field with a pool of 52 contractors that employ their services.

Marty Loney, training director for Local 396, said he has seen a special need for trained welders to work on well pads, pipelines, tanks and compressors.

“The need for welders is just unbelievable,” he said, estimating that there is a shortage of between 2,000 and 3,000 welders in the Valley.

And as the demand has grown, so, too, have the number of apprentices that the union takes on. Loney said Local 396 accepted 20 new apprentices last year, compared with about 10 to 12 just a couple years ago.

One of those apprentices was 23-year-old Josh Chaney, who started the program last summer.

After graduating welding school two years ago, Chaney said he wanted to expand his skill set through the apprenticeship program. He quickly gained experience working on oil and gas projects with area companies.

“At the contractors I worked with, that’s all we did was oil and gas,” he said.

Shale-related demand isn’t specific to the pipefitting trade, however.

Carlton Ingram, a business representative from International Union of Operating Engineers Local 66, said there is a strong need for workers trained in handling heavy machinery.

His union’s apprenticeship program has helped place workers with contractors looking for workers who can operate anything from excavators and bulldozers to front-end loaders and cranes.

While apprenticeships are key to getting young people invested in manufacturing and building trades, there remains a need in the short term, said Bert Cene, director of the Mahoning Columbiana Training Association.

Cene said the problem lies in the history of the area itself.

When the steel industry collapsed in the 1970s, “we basically said manufacturing is dead, so we’ve been moving people away from manufacturing,” he said.

School systems shifted focus away from the trades and emphasized obtaining a college degree. Fewer young people pursued skilled-labor careers, and the veterans started to retire.

Cene said there needs to be a fundamental shift in the way educators view manufacturing at the high-school level. One method is to run “guidance counselor boot camps” to educate school officials on the evolving nature of manufacturing.

“We want to make sure they’re exposed to it so they can expose our young people to it,” he said.

Until institutional changes can be made, training centers and colleges are developing programs to pick up the slack.

“The big problem ... was parents and kids and guidance counselors still [relate] industry to these old jobs,” said George Carney, industrial coordinator at Trumbull Career and Technical Center.

TCTC is one of many area training and career centers that have adapted their programs to address the new demand for skilled labor.

It is part of the Pathways to Competitiveness project, funded through a three-year, $6 million workforce innovation grant to the Oh-Penn Interstate Region.

Oh-Penn — comprised of Mahoning, Columbiana, Trumbull, Mercer and Lawrence counties — has been working with a variety of organizations to better prepare the area for the new landscape of manufacturing.

The initiative pulls together colleges, training centers, businesses, manufacturers and some labor unions to develop programs to train workers according to the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, philosophy.

“With the advent of [new] technology, it really required a workforce that is a knowledge-based workforce,” said Samuel Giannetti, Competitiveness Council member and executive director of workforce development at the West Central Job Partnership.

“With this grant, we have been focusing on the manufacturing sector because the skills there are so specific,” he said.

Carney began attending meetings with the partnership a couple years ago. Companies were looking for people trained in math, science and computers, and there was a sense of urgency to look to the future of the skills trades, he said.

Since then, training centers and colleges have shifted curricula and programs to cultivate more technical skills in those looking to go into the trades.

Of course, the more fundamental skills are still in demand, and coaches at training centers work with those on a daily basis.

TCTC and other centers such as Mahoning County Career and Technical Center and Columbiana County Career and Technical Center regularly train workers for water hauling, excavating, electrical and mechanical service positions in shale’s supporting industries.

“That’s the people we train regularly,” Carney said.

Interestingly, Carney recently discontinued an oil-and-gas-specific program at TCTC because the students were not getting jobs in the direct drilling field. Drilling companies, he said, were bringing in their own experienced workers to operate wells and rigs.

TCTC offers full-time programs that combine classroom education with hands-on training in machinery and other areas, such as welding and building.

The 10-month machinery course requires students to attend five-hour classes four nights a week and includes a 225 hour internship at the end.

Unlike programs run through unions, these courses can be expensive. TCTC’s machinery program costs students around $11,000, but the price includes $950 in books and $2,000 in tools that students can keep when the course ends, Carney said. And the timing of the classes allows students to work during the day to offset some of the costs.

It also has size limitations. A limited supply of teachers means that organizers need to keep the classes small enough for students to learn effectively.

Of course, the problem of the skills gap is not unique to the Ohio shale play. Various industries across the country have reported they cannot find sufficient skills in the labor market to grow and compete.

First introduced in 2008, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown’s bipartisan Strengthening Employment Clusters to Organize Regional Success, or SECTORS, Act would draw on funding from federal jobs programs to provide states with grants to align worker-training programs with regional industry needs.

States receiving grants under the SECTORS Act would be required to analyze priority industries and determine the skill levels of the current workforce in order to determine where gaps exist and to develop a pipeline of skilled workers.

Like Oh-Penn, the SECTORS Act would build a coalition of unions, education administrators and training providers to assess gaps and develop plans to close them.

Brown said his experience in Ohio provided the basis for his bill.

In part, the bill looks to implement the model of the Youngstown manufacturing hub America Makes, the National Additive Manufacturing Innovation Institute, in other states, Brown said.

“Youngstown has really been a prototype,” Brown said. “It’s been a template, a model for what we can do nationally.”

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