By Thomas Francis on Oct 12, 2022
For over a century, heavy industry defined the economy of southwest Pennsylvania in the USA. But in the 1980s, the steel mills began closing, and other manufacturing plants have followed in the decades since.
“At the time, it was devastating,” says John Goberish, who began his career counselling former steelworkers and remembers the unemployment rate hitting 28%. “It was hard to know what we could do to help these people get into something new.”
In 2014, the closure of the country’s largest zinc plant, in Potter Township, 48 kilometres [30 miles] north of Pittsburgh, dealt a crushing blow to the region.
Fortunately, the site of the zinc plant, along the south bank of the Ohio River, offered a perfect location for a new, multi-billion-dollar petrochemical facility. Shell Polymers Monaca will soon begin operations following one of the biggest construction projects the USA has seen in decades. Hiring local workers has been a major priority.
Investing in the workforce
Building a big, ultra-modern plant is only one part of creating opportunities. It also takes education programmes aimed squarely at equipping local candidates with the skills they need to qualify for manufacturing jobs of the future.
Goberish, now a dean at the Community College of Beaver County, says the first conversations with Shell about developing the local workforce started in 2012, when the company began scouting the region. In January 2015, the college launched a programme on process technology.
“To me, it’s ideal for an individual who likes to work with his or her hands and to be outside, but it’s not a stereotypical blue-collar job because there’s an engineering component – it can be very technical,” says Goberish. “Our graduates take physics, chemistry, biology. They learn about instrumentation, systems, and how to troubleshoot operations.”
The graduates make excellent candidates for work at the new plant, but the value of the degree goes far beyond Shell. Goberish says students trained in process technology can explore careers at the local nuclear power plant, in food and beverage manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, paper and pulp. They can even use their skills to work in steel production, which still has a presence in Pennsylvania.
“That’s where I want to be”
Southwest Pennsylvania native David Agnello was working in the service department of a transit authority when construction activity for the Shell plant attracted his interest.
“Seeing the plant being built, hearing all the buzz about it, all the workers heading to the site, the local economy beginning to boom, I decided, ‘That’s where I want to be,’” he says. “I realised it was an opportunity to get out of this job and have the kind of career where I could support a family.”
After graduating from the process technology programme, Agnello was hired by Shell as an operator, meaning he helps monitor the equipment in the plant to ensure it’s working safely and efficiently.
The Marcellus and Utica shale formations in western Pennsylvania are the source of natural gas that will feed the Shell plant’s production of polyethylene, a building block for a wide range of plastic products, such as containers, food packaging, piping and other household goods. To address plastic waste, Shell is advancing circular economy concepts, with a global ambition to use one million tonnes of plastic waste a year in its global chemical plants by 2025.
Jody Eldridge had been working in drilling operations in the Marcellus but grew tired of the industry’s cyclical nature. In 2016, she attended a local meeting where Shell staff presented a range of opportunities that came with the project. “Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?” she says now. Eldridge enrolled in the process technology programme, got her degree and in 2018 was also hired as an operator.
Signs of progress
The construction of the new plant brought some 9,000 workers to the site, and there are 600 permanent jobs. An economic impact study, commissioned by Shell and conducted by Robert Morris University, estimated that each job at Shell Polymers Monaca would indirectly lead to 18 new jobs, with a total economic impact of $3.3 billion annually across the 10-county region of southwest Pennsylvania. Researchers used IMPLAN, a software application widely used for modelling economic impact based on the multiplier effect of new jobs.
For long-time residents, the ripple effect is clear to see.
“We’re starting to see economic growth and development,” says Tony Amadio, a Beaver County commissioner. “We have new hotels, lots of new restaurants, and a brand-new school that is going to help us train our people early in areas that are in demand for the industry.”
Home values have been climbing steadily. Stores are bustling. And there’s a sense that the small towns of southwest Pennsylvania are regaining the momentum they lost a generation ago.
That has special meaning for people like Goberish, who still remember the region at its lowest point: “To go back to my first experience here, and now to be part of something where we’re starting to grow and prosper, that’s really fulfilling,” he says. “It’s energising.”