Pubdate: Sun, 08 Apr 2007
Source: Corpus Christi Caller-Times (TX)
Copyright: 2007 Corpus Christi Caller-Times
Author: Dan Kelley, Caller Times


Surveys Among Employers Don't Bear Out Concerns

In a city election in which job creation is an oft-cited issue, a new
argument has surfaced. To hear some say it, plenty of jobs are
available - if only the applicants had the necessary training and
could pass the drug test.

"We have 1,500 jobs with employers like Kiewit (Offshore Services
Ltd.) and Corpus Christi Army Depot that cannot be filled because our
kids don't have the job skills or cannot pass the drug test,"
Councilwoman Melody Cooper told the Caller-Times in a recent interview.

Cooper isn't the only local official who has been repeating this
statement as fact. Verifying it is difficult.

Skilled blue-collar jobs are tough to fill. That's true throughout the
country - nobody interviewed for this article disputed that.

There is a concern that politicians and other public officials are
hyping the problem to deflect criticism for slow local economic growth.

"I'm not denying we have a drug problem. I'm not denying we have an
education problem," said Butch Escobedo, who has served for two years
on the Coastal Bend Workforce Development Board, a state-funded agency
designed to link job seekers to companies. "Those problems are not
unique to Corpus Christi. Look at the Valley, they have the same
problems and they're growing faster than us."

Susan Groves, owner of Paul's Fabricating, declined to discuss her
hiring practices but said demand for skilled workers is high in her

Commenting on drug use in the workforce, she added, "I wouldn't single
out any industry, or Corpus Christi. I don't think drug abuse is
partial to income."

It's difficult to pinpoint where the concern over drug use among local
job applicants became a campaign issue. Cooper and others cite Roland
Mower, CEO of the Corpus Christi Regional Economic Development
Corporation. He said in an interview that he was relying on
information provided to him by business leaders and from an existing
industry survey compiled by the EDC.

Kiewit Offshore Services Ltd. did not return several calls for comment
to confirm the figures. Mower said the company has since corrected
him, saying the company could hire that many, but doesn't have that
many openings.

The EDC's survey asked 21 companies if the local labor supply was
adequate - 15 responded "no." All 21 gave explanations of the types of
workers it is most difficult to recruit. One company responded
"technical, people to work off-shifts, drug-free people." Far more
respondents to the survey cited lack of job skills than problems
finding drug-free workers.

That survey stands in contrast to another one performed on behalf of
the EDC. In 2003, the EDC hired Dallas-based Pathfinders Group to
study the availability of workers in the area.

The 2003 report found that 53 percent of companies in Corpus Christi
considered the availability of technical workers to be "Excellent" or
"Good." For skilled workers, that figure rose to 60 percent. Corpus
Christi fared better than other communities surveyed.

"We've seen a slow buildup of the economy since that time period,"
Mower said. "Any time the economy is stronger, more available labor is
put to work."

The most recent survey did not specifically ask employers any
questions regarding drug testing. Mower said that will be included on
next year's survey.

Mower, however, didn't start the debate over a skilled workforce in
the Coastal Bend. His predecessor, Ron Kitchens, claimed in 2003 that
the high school dropout rate in Corpus Christi cost the area more than
$100 million in lost wages.

Concerns over an absence of skilled workers in the Coastal Bend have
been part of the public discourse for years, and generally have
spurred calls for new training centers - such as those at Del Mar
College or the Craft Training Center of the Coastal Bend, which
recently began an expansion. Such claims have sparked calls to market
job training opportunities to high school students rather than open
new centers.

Bob Parker, president of Repcon Inc., a contractor to refineries along
the Gulf Coast and a participant in the Craft Training Center
expansion, said he and his competitors hire from a common pool
stretching to Baton Rouge. He said that because refineries along the
Gulf Coast tend to require turnaround contractors at about the same
time, demand increases during certain parts of the year. Once
employers start reaching past a core group of skilled workers, failure
rates on drug tests might hit 50 percent.

"I don't think it's substantially worse in Corpus Christi than it is
in Houston," Parker said. He said the labor pool in Corpus Christi is
small enough - and Houston so large - that if people fail the drug
tests at the same rate, it might have a bigger impact in Corpus Christi.

But there do not appear to be any definitive public numbers comparing
how often applicants fail drug tests. Practices at some local programs
suggest that even if those figures were available, it might understate
the extent of the problem.

Rachel Ballou, director of education at the Craft Training Center,
said when students are told they will be drug-tested before classes
begin, some leave the building and don't return.

Even so, she said, it isn't unusual to lose two or three students out
of about 105 through random drug tests.

Cooper said she has no ulterior motive for pointing out the problems
of drug use in Corpus Christi and that she has seen the results of
drug abuse and unemployment through her work as a lawyer.

"It doesn't matter if it's a problem somewhere else," she said. "It's
a problem here, and it needs to be addressed."

She called for a campaign to market the wages of some blue-collar jobs
but said the city has no plans at this time to do so.

District 3 Councilman Jesse Noyola also has taken up the fight,
telling constituents that jobs are out there. But he isn't sure about
the extent to which drugs are a drag on the local economy.

"Not everyone is on drugs," Noyola said.

Mike Carrano, business manager for the International Brotherhood of
Electrical Workers Local 278, said there are many explanations for the
labor shortage. Local wages took a dive in the 1980s during an
economic slump. Those wages deterred new workers from entering trades.
The entire shortage, he says, is compounded locally by rebuilding
efforts in parts of the Gulf Coast affected by hurricanes.

"People have predicted for a long time that there would be a shortage
of qualified manpower," Carrano said. "(Hurricanes) Rita and Katrina
sped it up by a few years."

He said the union had about 500 members, but 250 have gone to other
locations for more opportunity.
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MAP posted-by: Steve Heath