Chemical operators in demand locally

MARIETTA – The Washington County Career Center continues to train chemical operators, but demand in the Valley and beyond is showing no signs of slowing down.

Between 100 and 200 jobs that begin in the $15 to $17 an hour range and top out over $30 are expected to be available at local chemical plants this year, according to Jim Siegfried, training coordinator for industrial programs with the Career Center’s Adult Technical Training wing.

“The need is greater now than I’ve ever seen it,” he said.

And the opportunities aren’t limited only to this region.

“When we can find people that take our class that are willing to relocate, they’re hiring them one right after the other,” Siegfried said, noting he recently received an email from someone who used to work at an Ohio plant and is now at a facility in Texas, inquiring about people to fill 14 job openings.

Siegfried recalls that when he finished high school in the 1960s, graduates had three primary options – go to college, join the military or pick a local plant and start to work. Industrial jobs in the area have decreased since those days, but Siegfried noted many of the people who have done that work are approaching retirement age.

“That’s creating huge opportunities for the young people of this area,” he said.

But an aging workforce isn’t the only factor.

“We’ve had a tremendous amount of growth,” said Mike White, spokesman for Kraton Polymers in Belpre. “We’ve put over $75 million of capital expansion (into) our plant this past year.”

The plant will accept applications for operator positions from 1 to 6 p.m. Feb. 11-15 at the Belpre Shrine building. People can go to the website to download applications.

White didn’t give a number the plant expects to hire but said they’re always looking for “good people.” And they’ve gotten some of those from the Career Center, where White said about 30 of the plant’s current workers trained. DuPont’s Washington Works plant in Washington, W.Va., hired 131 people in 2012 and expects this year to add 60 to 80 people, including operators, mechanics, support staff, engineers and other professionals, according to Robin Ollis Stemple, regional public affairs manager. The new jobs are the result of a combination of attrition and some new positions. Chemical operators perform routine lab functions, handle materials and control and monitor processes that produce chemicals, Siegfried said.

After not offering the chemical operator program for three years, the Career Center brought it back in 2010 and is now running it every quarter. In addition to the operator classes at the main campus outside Marietta, lab tech classes are offered at sites in Belpre and Sardis.

The 12-week chemical operator course costs $1,500. A related full-time instrumentation and electricity course costs $7,000 for the year and can open up additional opportunities.

“You’ve got to have some smarts to do these jobs,” Siegfried said. “You don’t make mistakes in chemical plants because you blow them up.”

And the Career Center training is only the start.

“Everything you do in the plant you don’t do until you show you know what you’re doing,” Siegfried said. “You don’t get to be a chemical operator overnight.”

That work pays off in the salary, he said, pointing to a pair of 19-year-olds who completed the chemical operator class and got jobs at an Ohio company where they each earned $20,000 in their first four months.