Everywhere we turn it seems the subject of the aging workforce and the experience gap looms large in the oil and gas pipeline industry. Despite low oil and gas prices, there remain a number of new installation projects on the horizon, and integrity management requirements continue to drive the maintenance side of the business. Throughout the industry — and throughout this issue — you’ll see a focus on industry leadership and fostering new entrants to the oil and gas pipeline workforce.
I just got back from the inaugural Pipeline Leadership Conference, Nov. 4-5, at the University of Denver in Colorado. Benjamin Media, publisher of this magazine, organized the event, in partnership with Continuum Advisory Group and the Daniels College of Business at the university. While coverage of the event will be featured in our December issue, our cover story on page 18 focuses on NiSource’s Chuck Shafer winning the first annual Pipeline Leadership Award, which was presented at the conference.
Shafer heads up NiSource’s $1 billion per year capital improvement program, and his speech at the Pipeline Leadership Conference focused on the NiSource’s efforts to expand its internal capabilities with what he called the company’s “people-engineering strategy” and its efforts to build long-term relationships with construction contractors to streamline project execution. Continuum’s Mark Bridgers, who presented the award, said this focus on “people, process and practice” was a major factor in Shafer’s winning the vote by the Pipeline Leadership Conference program committee.
Bridgers also penned an overview of the 2016 North American pipeline and distribution market on page 22, which partly focuses on an initiative by the Distribution Contractors Association (DCA) to replenish the ranks of the pipeline workforce in preparation of expected increases in construction spending in the next five to 15 years. According to Bridgers, an additional 20,000 to 40,000 field staff may be needed to complete the work forecasted over the next decade and a half. The DCA has initiated an effort to attack this experience gap, along with a leadership consisting of executives from NiSource, Atmos Energy, Miller Pipeline, Michels Pipeline and Vermeer, plus an industry lobbyist that will specifically work on obtaining federal and state governmental support for these efforts.
Piggybacking on this notion, we spoke to members of the Young Pipeline Professionals USA about their efforts to build their ranks, which focuses on industry members 35 years old and younger. The group got its start in March, and association chair Tara Podnar McMahan says its membership is already at 82, with 16 percent represented by students. The association’s mission is to counteract the experience gap by having its members work together within the industry “to prepare themselves to accept the transfer of the duty of care for the pipeline industry,” McMahan says.
On the other side of the coin, Lincoln Electric is developing welding technology to help accommodate the lack in experienced operators.
What I’ve learned over the past month is that A.) I’m no longer considered “young” by one year, and B.) leadership comes from many sources. Whether it’s recruiting new pipeliners or inventing better tools to help the inexperienced, the looming workforce shortage is a challenge the industry must address. We hope there’s some younger pipeline professional reading this today who is inspired to achieve greatness to one day be honored as an industry leaders such as Shafer and other veterans. It’s time to step up!