On the cutting edge of manufacturing and high-tech workforce training - Energy Factor
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On the cutting edge of manufacturing and high-tech workforce training

May 30, 2017

Editor’s Note: The city of Beaumont, Texas, has long been host to refining and petrochemical companies, and its link to ExxonMobil is only strengthening as the company continues to expand its footprint at its refinery and polyethylene facilities. The Energy Factor spent a week in the city of more than 100,000 people to talk about that relationship and how those investments continue to transform the fabric of the community.

Brandon Bracken, a 17-year-old junior out of Beaumont, Texas, is a top-tier prospect who could get some attention from the majors.

Except if Bracken continues with his trajectory, the call for a job won’t come from a sports agent, but from a headhunter scouting the new wave of workers who are both skilled and technologically savvy. Thanks to an advanced computer networking program that allows him to work toward his associate’s degree while still in high school, the Beaumont native is a hot commodity in a petrochemical industry hungry for manpower.

“This is what decides your future,” Bracken said of the program during an interview at the Taylor Career & Technology Center. “Without this, I think I’d be a regular senior.”

Beaumont is host to an impressive roster of petrochemical companies that are leading a manufacturing resurgence thanks to a confluence of factors seen across the country. And while the promise of a manufacturing boom is encouraging, that momentum could falter if there are no trained workers to fill the new jobs. In fact, the industry will need to fill 3.5 million jobs through 2025, and the skills gap is expected to result in 2 million of those going unfilled, according to the Manufacturing Institute.

Recognizing that Beaumont’s revitalization partly dependent on that local industry flourishing, city leaders and educators are responding by training the next generation.

“We’ve had some students hired directly after graduating from high school and then they continue to work on finishing their degrees in the evenings,” said Miranda Philips, director of career and technical education for the Beaumont Independent School District. “That’s huge for an 18-year-old.”

Welding student at Lamar Institute of Technology.

Welding student at Lamar Institute of Technology.

ExxonMobil, with its ongoing construction projects at its refinery and polyethylene facilities, is anticipating an increased need for construction workers over the next few years. To meet that demand, students throughout the city attend classes not just devoted to traditional heavy industrial applications, such as welding and process operating, but also sophisticated curricula of computer drafting and IT support.

Within the high school, students like Bracken can participate in the dual-enrollment program. Across town, a new federally funded workforce development program within Lamar University is taking form this year, targeting economically challenged students who seek a career in the industry that surrounds their city. Paul Latiolais, director for the Center for Innovation, Commercialization and Entrepreneurship (CICE), runs the workforce training program.

“The training is geared to acclimate students to the rewards and responsibilities of a career in the petrochemical industry,” said Latiolais. “For many of our students, they realize this is a rare opportunity to alter their quality of life.”

Latiolais has 400 spots to fill in the program. After intense grassroots outreach with regional workforce groups to find the right individuals who want a career in the petrochemical industry, the center received 500 applicants in the first two months.

And next door to Lamar University, students at Lamar Institute of Technology (LIT) get hands-on experience running a distillation unit, donated by ExxonMobil, and identical to one they would find on the job after graduation.

“Our job is to produce a product, and our product is students who are fully trained,” said Pat O’Connor, chairman of LIT’s technology department. “We are producing future taxpayers.”

Above header image: Beaumont’s Taylor Career & Technology Center is helping train the next generation of tech wizzes to help drive the future of manufacturing and support a growing petrochemical industry surrounding this Texas city. These are just a few of those students: Top row (L to R): Jakobi Brazier, Central High School; Lizeth Castillo, Clifton J. Ozen High School; Areli Abarca, Clifton J. Ozen, Bottom row (L to R): Brandon Bracken, Westbrook High School and Ka’cee Parker, Clifton J. Ozen  Credit: Michael Starghill, Jr.

Sources:
The New York Times, Wanted: Factory Workers, Degree Required, Jan. 30, 2017
The Manufacturing Institute,Skills Gap in Manufacturing, 2015
American Petroleum Institute, Powering a manufacturing Renaissance
Lamar University, University breaks ground on innovation center

Tags: STEM, Gulf Coast investment, Growing the Gulf, Beaumont
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