Developing a workforce for energy infrastructure jobs

Brenda Hellyer (far right), chancellor of San Jacinto College in Texas, prepares to testify Tuesday at a House Energy Subcommittee hearing on the country's energy infrastructure. (Photo: Matthew Dembicki)

Much of the discussion around the federal government investing more in the nation’s infrastructure has focused on transportation — roads, bridges, highways, airports and the like — and the workforce needed to make those upgrades.

But the nation’s energy infrastructure — from power grids to oil and gas pipelines — also faces workforce challenges as demand for energy grows. That was a main topic of conversation Tuesday at a House Energy Subcommittee hearing on the nation’s energy infrastructure.

Members of the committee asked Brenda Hellyer, chancellor of San Jacinto College (SJC) in Texas, and other witnesses how to attract students and their families to good-paying jobs that don’t require a four-year degree, ranging from technicians at hydropower facilities to petrochemical process operators.

Hellyer — whose college is a training hub for the largest petrochemical manufacturing complex in the country — said strong partnerships among K-12, colleges and universities, and business and industry have been key to SJC’s efforts. For example, the college each year reaches thousands of local sixth-graders through festivals, camps and other programs to showcase the value of STEM skills and related careers. It revisits with students, teachers and counselors in eighth grade, and offers a “speakers bureau” for high schools through which local industry leaders discuss with students various local career options.

“You need that broad awareness,” said Hellyer said, adding that SJC works with eight early college high school programs, as well as with dual-credit programs at 11 area school districts.

Business and industry have been critical in providing the resources for outreach as well as for curriculum, training and facilities, Hellyer said. Those partners include the Port of Houston, Dow Chemical Co., Chevron Phillips, the U.S. Coast Guard and others.

“Our industry partners at the table with us is a critical factor,” she said.

Pell for short-term programs

To better connect people with available middle-skills jobs, Hellyer said that the community college sector supports allowing students to use federal Pell grants for short-term career and technical education programs, which has been proposed in a House bill to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. Subcommittee Chair Fred Upton (R-Michigan) noted that during dinner Monday with Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, the governor said that expanding Pell eligibility for short-term programs was key to continued development of the workforce in the state.

Several committee members — including Rep. Greg Walden (R-Oregon), chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee — observed that although education and training are not in the committee’s jurisdiction, they recognize the importance of a skilled workforce in growing and maintaining the energy sector.

Speakers also highlighted efforts between community colleges and unions to help prepare workers for energy jobs. Jim Ross, director of construction and maintenance at the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers, emphasized that unions often provide apprenticeship opportunities for graduates of community college programs, and, conversely, they encourage workers who complete their apprenticeships to pursue an associate degree.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily.