Leaders discuss local oilfield labor needs

07 31, 2013 by Houma Courier

More four-year college graduates are needed to fill the growing workforce demands in the Houma-Thibodaux region, local business leaders said Monday.

Oilfield business owners and executives gathered at Port Fourchon to discuss the challenges of filling labor needs in the evolving oilfield.

Sandra Woodley, president of the University of Louisiana System, which Nicholls State University is part of, joined the conversation.

Woodley spent part of the day discussing development during appearances at Nicholls and the port. She also planned to tour the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, or LUMCON, in Cocodrie and BP's Schriever training facility.

State Sen. Norby Chabert, R-Houma, said the trip will emphasize the "synergistic relationship" the university has with its two-year vocational counterpart, Fletcher Technical Community College in Houma.

Industry leaders said more focus needs to be put on churning out four-year degree specialists to serve the evolving technology of the oilfield.

"What we have missed particularly in our little sector of the oil and gas industry has been that future four-year leader that has some understanding of our sector of the industry," said Robert Clemons, vice president and chief operating officer of Houma-based SEACOR Marine, which operates a fleet of oilfield service boats in the Gulf.

While engineers are most sought after, Clemons said other types of graduates such as accountants, controllers and marketing managers are needed. He added that many companies have headquarters in Houston because of the high population of four-year graduates.

"We have a good survey program at Nicholls, but you have to go to Lafayette, New Orleans or Baton Rouge to be an engineer," said Oneil Malbrough, executive director of Coastal Services Environment and Infrastructure at engineering firm CBI, formerly Shaw Coastal.

Malbrough said his company has an 80 percent better worker retention rate when its employees complete internships with the company during their junior and senior years of college.

"But we can't intern in Terrebonne. In Terrebonne, where our main office is, we can't intern people there because you can't go to school in Lafayette, Baton Rouge and New Orleans and intern. So we have no interns. So we are losing ground in our area as business picks up," he said.

"You can't take a guy with a high school diploma or less and grow them from within. ... That is not the situation anymore. Technology has just gotten too advanced," Chabert said.

Woodly said there is sometimes a sense of "elitism" in academia that frowns upon workforce development as a flawed academic mission.

"I've said many times when those conversations come up, ‘What percentage of students when they graduate don't need a job?'" she said.

Lori Davis, SCIA president and owner of Houma's Rig-Chem, pointed out the need for industry-funded professorships and other collaboration between academia and industry.

This year, Nicholls will offer a maritime management concentration developed in coordination with local industries.

Woodley said the cost of raising numerous highly specialized degrees from scratch is prohibitive, so partnerships with other institutions could be a way forward for Nicholls.

Matt Carmichael, who works in government affairs for Anadarko, said classroom technology needs to cater to those already working offshore who want to better their training and education. He noted that some workers may be working 28 days on and 28 off in places such as Mozambique or New Zealand with no time for attending a traditional class.

"If they have access, these hard chargers that want to advance their degree are going to find a way to advance their degree," Carmichael said.

The meeting of business leaders preceded a discussion of how the offshore industry benefits its host region. Two Republican congressmen from Virginia and a Democratic representative from Georgia were part of a group hosted by the National Ocean Industries Association and the SCIA.