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.