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Sweetwater businesses compete against wind jobs

The equation changed in the winter, when layoffs hit the wind industry hard, Shamblin said. Unemployment for June was 6.7 percent, still below the state average but the highest in Nolan County since at least 2000. Rainey would hear again from his former employees around March, after the completion of some wind construction projects. "When it all shut down, all four of them came back looking for a job. By then, it'd slowed down for us, too," Rainey said.

They left for the money, and Ronnie Rainey didn't blame them.

Over the past two years, about four workers with his family-owned oil roustabout business decided - like so many in Sweetwater - to choose wind.

The jobs are physical and sometimes require nights spent far from home. But the pay could start at $14 per hour for unskilled laborers, not including overtime.

Work related to the construction and servicing of wind turbines soon became prized by job seekers in Nolan County.

"All anybody wanted was wind work," said Debra Shamblin, a career specialist at Workforce Solutions of West Central Texas in Sweetwater.

She recalled how meetings with job seekers would sometimes play out.

"We'd say, ‘Well, we have production opportunities in USG,' " referring to United States Gypsum, one of the larger manufacturing employers in Nolan County.

The response: " ‘No, not interested in that. I want to work for wind,' " Shamblin said.

This was last year, the height of the wind boom in Nolan County, where the first large-scale wind turbines were built only nine years previously. The boom brought in big commercial construction contractors, along with maybe 20 or so service... more [truncated due to possible copyright]  

They left for the money, and Ronnie Rainey didn't blame them.

Over the past two years, about four workers with his family-owned oil roustabout business decided - like so many in Sweetwater - to choose wind.

The jobs are physical and sometimes require nights spent far from home. But the pay could start at $14 per hour for unskilled laborers, not including overtime.

Work related to the construction and servicing of wind turbines soon became prized by job seekers in Nolan County.

"All anybody wanted was wind work," said Debra Shamblin, a career specialist at Workforce Solutions of West Central Texas in Sweetwater.

She recalled how meetings with job seekers would sometimes play out.

"We'd say, ‘Well, we have production opportunities in USG,' " referring to United States Gypsum, one of the larger manufacturing employers in Nolan County.

The response: " ‘No, not interested in that. I want to work for wind,' " Shamblin said.

This was last year, the height of the wind boom in Nolan County, where the first large-scale wind turbines were built only nine years previously. The boom brought in big commercial construction contractors, along with maybe 20 or so service and tooling companies who set up shop in the Sweetwater area.

Many non-wind businesses of all types found it challenging to hire and retain employees.

"There wasn't enough people for them and all of us, I guess," said Rainey, one of the owners of T & R Oil Field Construction.

He boosted entry-level pay a bit and also offered bonuses to workers who brought in other workers.

Mainly, though, he said he focused on trying to keep the employees he had.

"We were able to keep most of the people that worked here, but we did have to give raises to keep them here," he said.

The equation changed in the winter, when layoffs hit the wind industry hard, Shamblin said. Unemployment for June was 6.7 percent, still below the state average but the highest in Nolan County since at least 2000.

Rainey would hear again from his former employees around March, after the completion of some wind construction projects.

"When it all shut down, all four of them came back looking for a job. By then, it'd slowed down for us, too," Rainey said.

There were no jobs to offer, he said, adding that he had already laid off some workers in January.

Businesses affected

A year ago, probably a little more than 1,000 workers from the Sweetwater area were employed in the wind industry, said Ken Becker, executive director of Sweetwater Enterprise for Economic Development.

Now, the number is down to "a minimum" of 350, said Becker, whose organization administers the city's half-cent sales tax to give incentives for new businesses to come to Sweetwater. The organization also uses sales tax money for business retention.

"We have some very good service companies in town doing quite well," Becker said.

But the majority of Nolan County wind workers were getting paid by out-of-state commercial contractors, he said.

"The construction part of the wind business has almost slowed down to nothing" in Nolan County, Becker said.

The national recession has combined with banking woes to choke funding for some wind-related projects, he said. Wind companies are also still anxiously awaiting the final approval of transmission lines to carry their wind power to market.

Gaylan Marth said he still sees the benefits of the wind industry walk into his restaurant everyday.

"As the wind industry grew in Nolan County, so did my business," said Marth, who owns Big Boys Barbecue with his wife, Jane. He said he's only noticed a slight dip in business during the past two to three months.

But though Marth said the benefits have far outweighed any challenges, the wind industry has been something of a double-edged sword for other businesses when it came to hiring.

"If a guy could work and wanted to work, he was in the wind farm business," Marth said. "Everybody has had trouble keeping and getting hands."

Rise in wages?

Before the wind boom, Sweetwater's biggest factory-type employers, like Ludlum Measurements (about 400 employees) and USG (around 240), "were paying a good, livable wage," Becker said.

Still, "the wind energy has paid a premium wage in comparison," Becker said. Shamblin said she thought the difference might have been about $1.50 an hour last year for entry-level jobs.

In response to the wind-related employers, "Several different companies have adjusted their wages up a little bit," Becker said, though many companies contacted for this article were reluctant to reveal pay scale information.

Jeanie McPherson, chief financial officer for Ludlum, said competition with the wind industry forced the company to increase pay plantwide, with the highest pay increases going to technicians, a small percentage of employees.

A spokesman for USG said they do not publicly release wage and benefit information.

State data suggests a rise in Nolan County wages that compares favorably with increases in pay rates elsewhere, though it's difficult to isolate wind wages from non-wind wages.

Weekly average wages from private employers were $643 in the fourth quarter of last year, an increase of $83 from the same period in 2006, according to data collected by the Texas Workforce Commission.

Statewide, the increase was $61 over the same period, though the statewide average wage was higher at $955 per week.

Some employers didn't or couldn't adjust wages, Becker said.

He said he thought employers with lower-paying janitorial and hospitality jobs faced the most difficulty competing for workers.

"Some companies have had to do more work with less people. They just couldn't find them or couldn't keep them," he said.

Dale Miller, plant manager with National Gypsum in nearby Rotan, said his company lost some employees to the wind industry.

"It's nothing we can't manage but, yeah, we lost some people that had quite a few years here," Miller said.

The company had felt similar losses during various oil booms, but "not near like this, the last two or three years."

Employers now picky

The wind trend has been reversing the past six months, Miller said.

"In fact we had an employee that left to go to work for the wind industry. He came back because he was laid off," he said.

Now, "it's turned around," Becker agreed.

"I don't think wages are going to go down, you're just not going to have some of the increases. I think right now, you've got employers that can be a little more picky," Becker said.

Marth said he is trying to find a meat cutter for his restaurant.

"By far, I've had more applicants this time than in several years," he said.

Shamblin, the career specialist, said wind and oil layoffs began in early December and continued through March before stabilizing.

Such a shift in the labor market means longer odds for job seekers, she said.

"Positions that are open, even if they're lower positions, those employers have their pick of the litter. They have so many applicants for one position," she said.

Suddenly, those with wind experience find that they may be at a disadvantage, Shamblin said.

"Many employers consider them overqualified in that their longevity is not going to be with that company," Shamblin said.

Gone are the days when workers would hold out for the higher-paying wind jobs, she said. Positions like truck drivers and secretaries have all been part of the wind industry cuts.

Becker said he expects construction will shift to transmission towers, with the outlook strong for more wind work in the area. There is also the possibility of a large coal-fueled power plant coming to Nolan County, though questions remain before construction begins on the project.

But, for now, at least, unemployed workers face a poor job market, Shamblin said, and many former wind workers are having trouble even getting interviews.

It was just a few months ago that out-of-state callers were making inquiries to the workforce center, eager for wind jobs after seeing Sweetwater featured on national TV last July. Billionaire T. Boone Pickens used the massive Nolan County wind farms as a backdrop for talking about his views on energy.

"They were just pouring in here for jobs," despite warnings not to come without an offer in hand, Shamblin said.

Now, they've moved on, and Shamblin finds herself giving out similar advice to locals.

"We're encouraging them to use the Work-in-Texas system to get in there and check all throughout the state ... even if temporarily, until the job market picks back up here locally," said Shamblin, referring to the state's online job listings service.

"They want and need to get back to work," she said.


Source: http://www.reporternews.com...

AUG 1 2009
http://www.windaction.org/posts/21518-sweetwater-businesses-compete-against-wind-jobs
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