Linde Corp. employee Edward Macrae Jr. of Avoca helps install a test station manhole cover
JAKE DANNA STEVENS / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Companies Beefing Up Benefits Packages to Attract and Retain Skilled Labor
FOREST CITY — George Spencer wasn’t interested when a big pipeline company offered him an inspector’s job with a raise.
At the wheel of his crew cab pickup, his office on wheels as he calls it, near the work site in Forest City, the industry veteran of more than three decades remembered how Williams, one of the nation’s largest natural gas pipeline companies, tried recruiting him a few years ago, but he had his reasons to stay with Linde Corp.
“I turned it down,” he said of the offer. “I didn’t want to work for one year here, then get shipped out of state somewhere.”
The building and technical trades are running low on Spencer’s brand of experienced workers who have the chops to see one construction project to the end — and then stay on for the next one.
Stories abound about aggressive poaching tactics, about large companies swooping in with flashy signing bonuses and fat benefits to scoop young workers.
This is particularly true in the utilities industries, such as oil and gas, said Lyndsay Grady, workforce development director at the Greater Scranton Chamber of Commerce.
And it’s especially true in Northeast Pennsylvania, where major petroleum developers from around the nation swarmed to harvest natural gas trapped deep in the Marcellus Shale formation. She calls it the “Marcellus Train.”
Once they board the “train,” workers start on a job close to home, then, when it’s finished, they move to the next one. For large construction and oil and gas companies, that could be anywhere else in the country. Skilled laborers get comfortable with a nomadic lifestyle.
The exodus didn’t include just core workers such as welders and heavy equipment operators, but also supporting tradesmen such as diesel mechanics and other skilled technicians.
“They picked up and went,” Grady said. “But then we didn’t backfill those positions.”
The chamber’s Skills in Scranton workforce program is studying an increasing workforce gap in utility and construction trades as baby boomers rapidly approach retirement age; meanwhile, fewer young workers stand ready to fill their shoes. Skills in Scranton works with companies to drill down on just what they need in a young workforce to make sure schools give them the right knowledge.
For their part, local companies are beefing up benefits packages with retirement and family insurance plans, paid vacation time and short probation periods for new hires.
Seventy percent of construction companies struggle to fill hourly craft positions, according to a 2017 survey by the Associated General Contractors of America.
At Johnson College in Scranton, students learning those skills get hired even before they finish school, said Kellyn Nolan, the school’s chief academic officer.
“We always hear that we can’t produce our students fast enough for industry,” she said. “Usually by their sophomore year, students here at Johnson already have either a full-time or part-time job.”
Those who don’t usually get hired after graduating by the companies that first take them on as interns, she said.
At the Forest City job site, where Linde is rebuilding the walking trail over the 24-inch natural gas pipeline it laid for Lackawanna Energy Center power plant in Jessup, workers directed Ben Sickler, who steered the massive steel thumb of his John Deere 350 excavator to pick up a flat stone.
Gray and white chips flicked off the rock as the giant teeth clamped down. Like a longnecked dinosaur craning for water, the excavator arm reached down the steep embankment and placed the stone gently on top of a new retaining wall.
Sickler’s agility with the joystick comes from decades of practice, something the most ambitious trade school graduates can have.
“Trade schools will teach you just about enough to get you in trouble sometimes,” Spencer said, chuckling as he watched Sickler work. “But it’s good that they go to them.”
Spencer, 56, drove farm tractors at age 11. He drove his first bulldozer at 13, and fewer young people have the expertise that only those who grew up in it do.
He blames technology, computers and video games and a vanishing number of programs in high schools that teach those skills.
More than a decade ago, parents and high school guidance counselors started pushing their grads toward four-year degrees, not trade school certifications, which compounds the problem, said Patricia O’brien, marketing manager at Dunmore-based Five Star Equipment.
Five Star sells, leases and services heavy equipment for the utility and construction industries. It employs roughly 165 people at its eight branches in parts of Pennsylvania and New York.
For the last few months, its leadership has built a robust recruitment strategy, O’brien said.
Short-term strategy includes finding veterans, in large part because they’re loyal and many have technical knowledge from their service, including how to work on complex heavy equipment.
She sees new birth in trade school interest, although it could still take years until younger workers have experience enough to seal the workforce gap that started yawning years ago.
“Now people are seeing there’s a tremendous value in working with a trade,” she said. “These jobs are in high demand. The salaries have improved, benefits have improved. It’s a very noble and honorable profession.”