WPC ’14: ExxonMobil leader sees growing shortage of skilled workers


HOUSTON -- A growing US shortage of skilled labor will only get worse when new shale-enabled projects try to move forward.

That is the view of Stephen D. Pryor, president of ExxonMobil Chemical. Pryor offered his longer-term views on the global petrochemical industry in a keynote address at IHS Chemical’s 29th World Petrochemical Conference.

This shortage of skilled labor is not limited to energy and chemicals. The National Association of Manufacturers reports that two-thirds of all US manufacturers are experiencing moderate to severe worker shortages, with up to 600,000 jobs going unfilled.

How is this possible? US students continue to show declining interest and proficiency in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). In 2008, only 4% of US bachelor's degrees were in engineering; in China, it was 31%.

The STEM disciplines are the foundation for innovation and economic competitiveness. And increasingly, good manufacturing jobs require proficiency in one or more of the STEM fields, especially in high-value-added industries like energy and chemicals.

Building a workforce

The energy and chemical industries are built on math and science. Strengthening STEM education and expanding the pool of skilled labor is needed. Pryor affirmed that the energy industry must take steps to partner with educators and focusing on quantifiable results.

ExxonMobil helped launch the National Math and Science Initiative back in 2007. This initiative takes innovative, proven programs and scales them up to a national level.

One of the key goals is to increase the number of highly qualified US math and science teachers at the high school level. So far, more than 60,000 existing teachers have completed training, and by 2020, nearly 10,000 new math and science teachers will be certified.

The other skilled labor group

Skilled jobs like instrument technicians and machinists do not require a four-year degree in most cases, but they do require math and science skills. ExxonMobil recently partnered with nine Houston-area community colleges in a new program to expand vocational training in a program is labeled, "Houston + Natural Gas = Jobs."

The goal is to prepare thousands of high school graduates and returning military veterans for skilled jobs in the Texas chemical industry. This Houston training initiative has received both state and national recognition.

ExxonMobil was named Employer of the Year by the Texas Workforce Commission and will receive a leadership award from the National Association of Workforce Boards.

In closing, Pryor affirmed that  the petrochemical industry has tremendous opportunities. With shale oil and gas developments, the US can take a leading role and support the growth of a new generation of high-paying, middle-class jobs.

But strengthening the US math and science education and expanding the skilled workforce is the longer-term challenge. By embracing shale energy, the US can meet the needs of a growing middle class overseas and revitalize the domestic economy.

Cover photo by F. Carter Smith, Bloomberg

From the Archive