MCALLEN, RGV – One of the Rio Grande Valley’s top employment analysts says the number of construction industry jobs in the region could double if liquefied natural gas terminals get built at the Port of Brownsville.

Mike Willis said anywhere between 6,000 to 9,000 construction workers would be needed over a four- to six-year period to build the LNG export terminals. And the jobs are well-paid, Willis said, with entry-level laborers earning $15 an hour.

At the moment, hundreds of the Valley’s skilled workers are gainfully employed working in the energy sector up and down the Gulf Coast, Willis said. If LNG terminals are built at the Port of Brownsville, many of these workers could return home.

“All around the Gulf Coast, Rio Grande Valley workers are employed in the skilled trades. To get them back home we have to create job opportunities here,” Willis told the Rio Grande Guardian. “While the oil and gas downturn has affected the upstream business, drilling, oil field manufacturing, etc., downstream, in the refineries and petro-chemical plants, projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars are going on. There are all kinds of long term projects going on along the Gulf Coast.”

Willis is senior business relations representative for Workforce Solutions in Hidalgo County. He is also executive director of the South Texas Manufacturers Association, which is based in McAllen. He gave a power point presentation about the Rio Grande Valley jobs market at a forum held at South Texas College’s technology campus last week. The forum focused on how to better integrate education with the workforce needs of business and industry.

During his remarks at the forum, Willis told of a phone call he got recently from Chicago Bridge & Iron, a company that specializes in the engineering and construction of large steel structures. He said the company told him they have more than 1,000 workers from the Valley working along the Gulf Coast.

“Chicago Bridge & Iron called us. They said they have 1,000 Valley employees on the payroll working in Corpus and along the coast. Those workers could be brought home to help with the LNG projects when they start up. We could see a 50 percent growth in construction employment, just from those (LNG) projects.”

If the LNG terminals do come to the Valley, the growth in construction jobs will offset a sluggish housing construction market, Willis said. “Construction is the missing link in the recovery from recession. We have not seen a strong rebound in construction. We are seeing a lot of commercial and some multi-family, but not a lot of single home construction, especially starter homes.”

Asked about his conversation with Chicago Bridge & Iron, Willis told the Rio Grande Guardian: “Chicago Bridge & Iron told me they had many hundreds of openings right now in Louisiana. They told us they had between 500 and 1,000 employees working just north of here on various projects. Those are good paying jobs. If the LNG projects that are proposed come to fruition – I think there is another year of permitting to go through –they are going to need 6,000 to 9,000 construction workers for four to six years.”

Willis said Chicago Bridge & Iron told him that an entry level laborer will typically start at around $15 an hour. “Your helpers, which are the next tier up, typically earns $18 to $22 an hour. And then with more experience there is higher level credentials that pay even better.”

Willis noted, however, that not all 6,000 to 9,000 LNG jobs will come at once. “Like with the wind farms and a lot of other projects, they do not hire 6,000 people on day one and all of those 6,000 people stay with the project for seven years. It moves in phases, so workers come in and move out as the different phases come in.”

Willis said three LNG companies that are going through the federal permitting process right now to secure the right to build a terminal at the Port of Brownsville. “The biggest of these is going to have multiple phases going on so those jobs are going to last quite a few years. That is a good opportunity to rejuvenate the construction industry in the Valley and bring some people home that have left the Valley to find work.”

In other commentary during his power point presentation at the education and workforce forum, Willis said the Valley could benefit from the “re-shoring” that is happening now because China is not as attractive as it used to be for major manufacturers.

“Mexico is going to be the biggest beneficiary of the re-shoring. However, we have a unique location advantage in the Valley. Our proximity to all the tremendous manufacturing growth in Mexico is an asset for us. Supply chain and component manufacturing companies are looking at the U.S. side. They want the best of both worlds,” Willis said.

Willis said employment in Reynosa maquilas has rebounded strongly. He said that during the recession the number of maquila jobs in Tamaulipas’ biggest city dropped to 70,000. Now, he said, that figure is over 100,000. He said that presents a good opportunity for the Valley.

“We have a really good opportunity. The challenge as any EDC will tell you is that when we meet with companies, it is finding people with the technical skills that are needed for those mid-level manufacturing jobs. They are critical to the success of small plants.”

Another point Willis made during his job market analysis is that the healthcare industry does not, on average, pay as well as many people think. Yes, he said, becoming a doctor is a great career path to take. However, he said, the preponderance of jobs in the home health and social services part of healthcare depresses average wages for this sector. “Healthcare is fourth lowest sector for wages. Forty percent of healthcare workers are in home health and 20 percent are in social services. They earn on average $276 a week and $340 a week.”

As for retail and hospitality, Willis said this sector will continue to see job growth because the Valley’s population continues to grow. “Retail and service is almost on auto pilot,” he said.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying this story shows Mike Willis speaking at a workforce, education and employer roundtable discussion held at South Texas College’s technology campus in McAllen, Texas, on May 25, 2016.