The easiest time to get hired at one of the seven oil refineries in the Los Angeles area is during what's called a turnaround. These breaks, when the refineries are shut down for routine maintenance, are incredibly labor-intensive. And refineries want to get them done as quickly as possible.
So companies need enough people to get the job done. But those workers must have specific skills.
In this line of work, as with other U.S. industries, there's a skills gap.
The unemployment rate is down to 6.3 percent, but that's partly because 800,000 people dropped out of the labor force in April. Meanwhile, employers like the Southern California refineries are sifting through hundreds of applications and not finding anyone who's qualified to do the vacant jobs.
The key to closing that gap comes down to training. In the L.A. area, training programs are working with the local industry to meet its needs, while offering prospective employees certification, for free.
Building A Better Kind Of Program
At the refinery contractor Veolia, Steve Martinez is in charge of hiring for turnarounds.
"They need to have specialized training, particularly in safety protocols," he tells NPR's Arun Rath. "Of course, a lot of your general population looking for blue-collar work are not going to have those requisite skills."
Veolia seeks to fill positions as diverse as safety attendants, hydroblasters and truck drivers. All of these are middle-skill positions, grueling jobs that pay $14 to $16 per hour and require special training. The stints last about one to three months. While the jobs may be temporary, shifts often last 12 to 14 hours a day, allowing workers to earn more money over a shorter span of time.
"We have recruited in the past from all sectors of the job market ... but we still suffered from folks that were lacking some basic skills we assumed the population had a grasp on," he says.
Chevron has a turnaround planned soon for their refinery in El Segundo, and Veolia is one of the companies they've hired to take care of it. To prepare, several dozen people have gathered at the refinery to be trained as safety attendants. In the rising afternoon heat, the trainees rotate through hands-on stations, learning how to handle equipment and put out fires — literally.
Jason Vogel is the architect of the training program. He says that though safety attendant is an entry-level position, it's vitally important. "If the safety attendant doesn't show up, well, then the craft workers can't work," he says.
Vogel used to teach classes for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration at a nearby university. When he heard about the struggles companies like Veolia were having filling open jobs, he knew how to help. Vogel partnered with the California-based Occupational Safety Councils of America, or OSCA, and asked the refineries what they were looking for.
"The program was built from industry," he says. "We didn't build and hope it met their standards. We had them build it so we knew it met their standards."
Covered by the federal Workforce Investment Act, OSCA receives government funding, so trainees don't need to pay out of pocket. The legislation gives grants to states to run training programs that prepare workers for the jobs that both they and businesses need.
With Vogel's training, the resulting jobs may be short-term at first, but the skills and credentials the programs offer have long-term potential. It's the prospect of a career that gets his trainees excited.
The Lives Behind The Numbers
Ricardo Corros and Soynika Brown-Johnson are pursuing different positions, but for both of them, the key is in the credential. They were enrolled it Vogel's training in March.
Since leaving the Army in 2004, Corros had been frustrated by his work as a truck driver — not much of a career ladder, he says. Though he knew he wanted a job at a refinery, the way to get one wasn't clear. "I heard it takes three years to get into a refinery itself, and I didn't know the first step," he says.
His classmate Brown-Johnson had a similar problem, even though she had already paid for a credential. Still underemployed, she found she couldn't afford additional training. Between travel and fees to take the classes, she would have been expected to pay hundreds out of pocket. That barrier fell after signing up for the free government training.
Now, she has her sights set on new heights: a red hat.
"A red hat is the ultimate, like a supervisor of all the safety personnel," she explains. "It's a nice place to be, you know, financially and to be able to walk around with a red hat and to know what you're doing. You're very respected."
Back in March, Brown-Johnson's anticipation was palpable.
"When I was standing in line on Monday, to sign up, to check in, I was like, 'I'm excited!' My heart was beating," she said. "I was excited because I haven't did it in a while, and I enjoy myself out there. It's something different."
Both Corros and Brown-Johnson have since found turnaround jobs with oil industry contractors.
Though these two people are now employed, they constitute a small number of workers in one narrow slice of a big industry, in one region of one state.
A Government Accountability Office study reported that hundreds of thousands of people used federal funds to pay for job training. But even the GAO has no idea how many of them have found jobs.
Despite the Workforce Investment Act and other government programs designed to give people the necessary skills for jobs, the problem persists. It's one thing to complete training; it's another entirely to land a job afterward.
ARUN RATH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. The economy has been struggling for so long, the release of the government's monthly jobs report has turned into a somber ritual. But April's report which came out yesterday brought good news.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: OK, breaking news. The jobs numbers are a big story this morning.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: 288,000 jobs created...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: The unemployment rate drops down to 6.3 percent.
RATH: Now, if you look out your window, you're not likely to see people dancing in the streets. Unemployment fell so sharply in part because 800,000 people dropped out of the labor force. Employers say there are still some jobs out there and they're having a hard time filling them because the workers lack essential skills. And that's our cover story today - bridging the skills gap.
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RATH: Of course, behind all those government statistics there are real people, like Ricardo Corros. He's been a truck driver for years but for him the golden ticket would be working in an oil refinery. That shouldn't be a problem. There are seven oil refineries operating right here in the L.A. area,. But it's not so simple.
RICARDO CORROS: I didn't know how to get into a refinery. I heard it takes three years to get into a refinery itself. I didn't know the first step. There's online applications you can do but out of all the emails I don't think people are going to call you back unless you know somebody; a cousin or uncle, and I don't.
RATH: We'll get back to Ricardo in a bit but first, more on the skills gap and his potential employers. The easiest time to get hired at a refinery is during what's called a turnaround. That's when they have to shut down for routine maintenance. Now every second a refinery is shut down, money flies out the window.
So companies want to do the turnaround as fast as possible. That requires hiring hundreds of people. But those workers require specific skills and need to hit the ground running. Here's Steve Martinez. He has to hire people to staff these turnarounds.
STEVE MARTINEZ: They need to have specialized training, particularly in safety protocols. And in the course of a lot of general population particularly looking for blue-collar work are not going to have those requisite skills.
RATH: Martinez is in charge of west coast hiring for a company called Veolia. Refineries hire his company to help with these turnarounds. He's mostly looking for what are called middle-skill positions, jobs like safety attendants, who watch to make sure everything is running smoothly and safely; hydro blasters, those are workers who clean out the inside of oil tanks. And special onsite truck drivers.
All of these positions pay about $14 or $16 an hour and require special training and credentials. The jobs are grueling. And although Veolia has a good safety record, they're a lot more dangerous than working at Starbucks or a Target. But the economy has been so bad that every time companies in the region would post a job, they'd get hundreds, even a thousand applications. And even still they were having trouble. Here's Martinez again.
: We have recruited in the past from all sectors of the job market. And we've seen a lot of candidates coming from different industries. But we still suffered with folks that were lacking some basic skills that we assumed, you know, the general population had a grasp on. We have found, you know, probably more cases than not that some of the employees that we've had lacked a certain level of computer skills. Reading skills were low and retention skills were low.
RATH: That right there is the skills gap. The Workforce Investment Act and other government programs are supposed to fill in that gap by helping to train workers, but often they don't work. A report from the Government Accountability Office back in December found that a full 80 percent of job training centers reported employers approaching them for help filling positions but leaving empty handed. That's exactly what Steve Martinez was seeing for years.
: Because we weren't finding the right candidates to fill these positions, we were importing them from other parts of the country, you know, from our other locations like in the Gulf of Mexico, in the Texas area. We'll import them, we'll house them. You know, we'll pay per diem for them. That gets expensive.
RATH: The Chevron refinery in El Segundo has a big turnaround coming up, but now they're looking for workers closer to home. Just outside of L.A., I joined a couple dozen people who were training to be safety attendants during that Chevron turnaround and others going on this year. It's a group of men mostly, although I do see one woman among the trainees. They gather in clusters around three hands-on stations.
KEN ACKBAR: Give me the basic PPE to require to have on as a safety attendant, a hard hat...
RATH: That's Ken Ackbar. He's drilling one of the trainees on the necessary PPE, that's personal protective equipment.
TRAINER: OK. And a full gas meter? OK. And a reflective vest or a fluorescent vest because of high visibility, right?
RATH: Ken Ackbar is pointing now to a row of fire extinguishers. And beyond that, a big dark platform that contains a pool of liquid with a metal structure in the center.
TRAINER: What I want you to do is take that fire extinguisher and get over there. You're going to do a visual inspection of it and make sure your equipment is good. And then once you're comfortable that it is good, you're going to walk over and position yourself strategically where you think it is best where you need to be to put this fire out. And when you're ready, just say ready and then I'm going to light it for you.
RATH: The instructor flips a switch and a fire flares out from the center of the platform.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Fire, fire.
RATH: The trainee takes a confident stance near the fire, not too near, and douses it with the extinguisher. He has it put out in about 10 seconds.
JASON VOGEL: Although it's entry level, it's a very important position.
RATH: This is Jason Vogel. He's the architect of the safety attendant training program.
VOGEL: Because if the safety attendant doesn't show up, well, then the craft workers can't work. So the welder, the carpenter, the pipefitter, all those guys can't go in unless the safety attendant is there. And they still get paid so...
RATH: Vogel used to teach classes for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration at a nearby university. A few years ago he heard about companies like Veolia, shipping and refinery workers from the Gulf Coast and thought he could do better. He partnered up with a group called the Occupational Safety Councils of America or OSCA, and asked the refineries directly what they were looking for.
VOGEL: The program was built from industry. We didn't build it and hope it met their standards. We had them build it so we knew it met their standards.
RATH: Here's the other key part of the OSCA training. The program is set up under the umbrella of a California community college district. That's crucial because the district is a government-approved training provider. In other words, they receive Workforce Investment Act dollars to train people looking for jobs so those people don't have to pay out of pocket for all those classes.
The government is paying to give people the training and credentials they need to get jobs the employers are desperate to fill. They're just entry level jobs at first but those credentials and training stick with them. Again, Jason Vogel.
VOGEL: We make sure they understand that if you take these courses it doesn't mean you're automatically going to become the safety manager at the jobsite. But what it does is it gives you the training and the background where if you do a good job and you put your, you know, years of experience in it, it opens up opportunities for you to have a safety career.
RATH: Back at the training, it's that prospect of a career that has the trainees excited. One of them is Ricardo Corros. You remember him from earlier.
CORROS: I didn't know how to get into a refinery. I didn't know the first step.
RATH: Ricardo started working as a truck driver after leaving the Army in 2004. It's frustrating, he says, not much of a career ladder. It was when he was shuttling oil and waste between the refineries and the harbor that it struck him. The refinery workers had what he wanted.
CORROS: A lot of them worked four on four off, 12 hours a day, hard work but good money. And it seemed like something I'd like to do for the rest of my life.
RATH: So would you have had a shot, do you think, if not for this program, not for this...
CORROS: Not really, with no experience. No, I don't think so.
RATH: One of his classmates here today Soynika Brown-Johnson has already gone out and paid for one of those necessary credentials, but she still can't find steady work either. And she tells me she can't afford to pay for any additional training.
SOYNIKA BROWN-JOHNSON: It costs. The classes that I have taken already, they've cost me out of my pocket, either traveling to another state to take the classes or either I had to - I went to Dominguez and I actually had to pay $750. So that's - this is a big difference when you can take the classes for free compared to coming out your pockets to pay for it.
RATH: Brown-Johnson has been underemployed for years. Now she's said to make $14 or $16 an hour working 12-hour days every day until the turnaround is over in two or three months. And she's already dreaming of a promotion to a full-time refinery safety manager, aka a red hat.
BROWN-JOHNSON: A red hat is like the ultimate, it's like a supervisor of all of the safety personnel. So you go and you do audits and you make sure everybody's following the rules of the refinery. It's a nice place to be, you know, financially and, you know, just to be up there to walk around with a red hat and to know what you're doing and, you know, you're very respected.
RATH: Initially her work as a safety attendant will only line up with the refinery turnarounds. So she'll have to wait to take classes in the off-season. But unlike before, she won't have to pay out of pocket for additional training. And she's more confident there will actually be work on the other side.
BROWN-JOHNSON: Actually, when I was standing in line on Monday to sign up, to check in, I was like, I'm excited. Like, my heart was beating. I was just excited because I haven't did it in a while, and I enjoy myself out there. Like, it's something different.
RATH: After we first talked to her, we found out Soynika Brown-Johnson got a job with Irwin, a contractor similar to Veolia. And Ricardo Corros, the guy who couldn't find a way into the refinery industry, he got a job with Veolia. If things at the refinery go according to schedule, they'll both start working on Monday.
These two people and most of the others in this program have found jobs that could turn into careers. But we're talking about a relatively small number of workers in one narrow slice of a big industry in one region of one state. A Government Accountability Office study in March reported that in 2011, hundreds of thousands of people used federal funds to pay for job training. But even the GAO has no idea how many of those people have landed jobs.
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RATH: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.