BROWNSVILLE, Texas – The executive director of Workforce Solutions Cameron admits he is worried he may not be able to produce enough skilled construction workers for the three LNG facilities that may be built at the Port of Brownsville.

Pat Hobbs said if all three liquified natural gas export terminals are built at the same time he will need to find 6,000 to 8,000 workers.

Having received a green light from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last November, Texas LNG Brownsville, Rio Grande LNG and Annova LNG could make their Final Investment Decision to build export terminals at the Port of Brownsville in the first half of 2020.

“If we could land a manufacturing firm now, we could handle it. It is the LNG’s I am worried about,” Hobbs told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“I have a little bit of time to build the workforce but I am having a hard time getting the participation of the students, the trainees, because they do not see the carrot yet. I keep telling the LNGs, until you come and drop that carrot and say I am going to hire 500 welders at $25 an hour, they are not going to get off their butts and go to school and get the training to get the jobs.”

Photo credit: Next Decade, parent company to Rio Grande LNG.

Workforce Solutions Cameron is one of the 28 Workforce Development Boards across the State of Texas. “We work hard to deliver on our vision statement of being the premier, proven provider of high quality workforce resources for Cameron County,” Hobbs said.

Hobbs said it is a “well-proven truth” that the prosperity of any region depends on the quality of its workforce.

“A quality workforce sustains current business and industry growth. It attracts new industries to the area which brings more and better-paying jobs to the communities, which in return improves the overall quality of life for its citizenry.”

Hobbs said his administration works tirelessly with city and county officials, state legislators, school and college officials, and economic development professionals across the region to take advantage of funding opportunities.

He said funding opportunities can lead to capacity building and program development to stay on top of the changing workforce landscape.

Hobbs said there is no question that the prospect of finding sufficient workers for the LNG projects at the Port of Brownsville is proving the biggest test of his career. He said he is working with state officials and local high schools, colleges and universities in order to be ready.

“This is by far the biggest project I have worked on. It is $37 billion. That is the investment if all three LNGs come, Thirty-seven billion dollars. The Valley has never seen anything like this. It is like Toyota hitting San Antonio. In fact, I think it is bigger,” Hobbs said.

Asked if a high percentage of the construction workers needed to build the LNG projects might come from outside of the Valley, Hobbs answered affirmatively.

Pat Hobbs

“It is quite possible they could come in from outside the Valley. They (the LNG companies) say they have about 2,000 Valley residents working up and down the coast that have already done this kind of work. That is good, it takes a little pressure off of me. If they supply 2,000 that leaves 4,000 for me to find, instead of six. I am not against that.”

Hobbs said the LNG firms have committed to hiring at least 35 percent of their workforce from the Valley. “I am sure they will live up to their deal,” he said.

He admitted that his “biggest worry” is that all three LNG firms decided to start building at the same time.

“I was hoping one would come in and do their site work and then those site workers would move to the next project. And they would be working for seven years. I do not know if that is going to happen or not. It depends on the permitting.”

Hobbs pointed out that the three LNG firms still need to get permits from state and federal energy and environmental regulatory agencies before they can break ground.

“Once they get all their permits they have to make their final investment decision, they call that the FID,” Hobbs said. “Once they have pre-sold all their gas and make that final investment decision, it is game on, let’s go.”

Hobbs said most of the jobs crated by LNG would be construction-related. Once the construction is over with, managers and engineers will be needed for the plants.

“We have been working with TSTC and the universities to try and train the operators that will run those plants, rather than bringing the people in. We have got it planned out but I cannot really commit to anything or publicize it or market it because the carrot is not out there,” he said.

Hobbs gave his exclusive interview to the Rio Grande Guardian during the recent European Site Selector Tour hosted by Rio South Texas Economic Council. Hobbs participated in a discussion about economic and workforce development at the Port of Brownsville.

In his interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, Hobbs chucked: “I am going to get blamed if it does not happen, if we cannot provide the workers.”

Asked if he had made state officials in Austin aware of the need for more construction workers, should the LNG companies decide to build their export terminals, Hobbs said: “Yes, but that carrot needs to be dropped. There is really nothing we can do about it. I am hoping that the first sets of workers that they need, we have them. The dirt movers and the foundation work, laying the concrete, that kind of stuff. But, it is the next level, when they start building it up, that is where we may be in trouble. But, we will see.”

Hobbs said the good news is that the partners of Workforce Solutions Cameron are all on the same page when it comes to LNG.

“As a group, all of the heavy hitters and involved people are finally worrying, like I am beginning to worry, about the workforce. It gets the colleges involved, it gets the high schools involved with their P-TECHs (pathways in technology). They are all cranking up,” Hobbs said.

“Harlingen does a fantastic job with their technical programs. Brownsville needs to do the same thing. That core of workers starts in junior high and builds into the high school and connects to the college.”

Another aspect to the challenge, Hobbs said, is that the LNG companies will attract numerous suppliers to the Rio Grande Valley.

“There will be other companies coming in to supply them. The whole thing grows,” he said.

“You will have LNGs coming in and paying $20 an hour when the current market is at ten. They are going to suck up all the good talent. The whole rate is going to increase. If other companies want to stay in business why will have to increase their wage rates. It is good for the whole economy. It will trickle down. I am looking forward to it. It may take a year or two to get fully engaged but there is going to be some trauma at the beginning but we will get through it.”

Asked if he thinks the LNG companies will go ahead with their FIDs, Hobbs said: “A lot of people are converting to liquefied natural gas because it is clean and cheaper and better for the environment. It is going to be a good business. I don’t think they will have any trouble selling their product.”

In a statement made after FERC approved their project, Texas LNG said: “The Texas LNG project will bring economic stimulus to the surrounding communities including construction jobs, permanent family wage jobs, tax revenues, and opportunities to support local businesses. By delivering clean, safe, low-cost Texas natural gas energy to our customers around the world, Texas LNG can contribute to a cleaner global environment and improve the standard of living for working families in the area.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows Pat Hobbs, executive director of Workforce Solutions Cameron, aboard a bus filled with site selectors from Europe. They participated in a three-tour of the Rio Grande Valley organized by Rio South Texas Economic Council. The Rio Grande Guardian will be producing a series of stories based upon the tour.