'Go west' is still good advice -- if you're an engineer or a pipe fitter
Las Vegas, Nev. — If Horace Greeley were still around, he would probably begin telling people to "go west" once again. But today he would have to add a number of conditions.
"Oil and gas exploration, coal and hard-rock mining, synthetic fuels production, and the proposed MX missile project in the Rocky Mountain West add up to a growing demand for labor that will far outstrip the native work force in the next decade," explains Phil Burgess, director of the Western Governors' Policy Office (WESTPO).
Western leaders from government and industry met this week at WESTPO's invitation to discuss the coming manpower crunch. They foresee a number of serious social and economic problems in the developing situation which they hope to minimize by careful planning.
In the 1970s, the Western US emerged as the fastest-growing area in the nation. In the immediate future, the synfuels industry being fostered by the fledgling federal Synthetic Fuels Corporation, the massive MX missile program, and Interior Secretary James G. Watt's announced intention to foster domestic production of strategic minerals represent new forces which could push development here to an even more frenetic pace.
The magnitude of the economic pressures being focused on the Rocky Mountain region by these diverse national demands is just becoming apparent.
A recent WESTPO study, conducted by Apt Associates, estimates that direct employment in the oil and gas, coal mining, power plant construction, uranium mining, and synfuels projects may demand an additional 100,000 to 200,000 workers in the next decade. In addition, the huge MX missile project (if it is finally approved), will have a peak labor demand of over 22,000 people. And the worker requirements of the minerals industry are expected to keep pace with those in energy.
"It is clear that the combined labor demand of energy development and construction of the MX missile system will be significant. It is also clear that there is a relatively small pool of unemployment labor presently available in the West," the APT analysts conclude.
However, these industries require a high percentage of skilled people: engineers, electricians, ironworkers, pipe fitters, and the like. Some, particularly engineers and technicians, are in short supply nationality.
"It is already so bad that some companies are offering a $5,000 bounty to anyone who will find them an engineer," says Jack Story of EG & G, a technical company with 18,000 employees. "More engineers are retiring than are graduating ," reports Mr. Story, who estimates there are 50,000 more engineering jobs than engineers to fill them. The synfuels and MX programs will make this shortage even more acute, he believes.
There may be enough workers with other skills nationwide, but there are already shortages in the West. Historically, those who move from one region to another also change occupations, points out Ben Chinitz, a regional economist with Apt Associates. This means that they must be retrained. However, the Western region is severely limited in its ability to train people in the required skills.Colorado, for instance, has the facilities to turn out about 240 pipe fitters and welders a year, only 40 percent of the expected demand from the state's oil shale and coal mining industries alone.
At the federal level, the Reagan administration has proposed eliminating the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act programs that a number of Western officials were looking to for help. At the same time, many Western state legislatures, following the national budget-paring trend, have whittled away at state education programs.
Lee Zink of the University of New Mexico warns that the region's universities are unlikely to fill this gap. "Asking that universities undertake this tremendous educational task, particularly without providing them with additional resources, as many state legislatures are doing, is to assure that it will not get done," says Dr. Zink.
"I'm afraid we're going to be seeing a western migration like we had in the 1930s, '40s, and '50s," warns Ben Whitfield of Colorado's Office of Manpower Planning and Economic Development. This already has begun in towns like Evanston, Wyo., the focus of domestic oil and gas exploration.
"After Mt. St. Helen's blew, a Portland radio station told people not to worry, that there were plenty of jobs in Evanston," recalls Charles McLean of the Denver Research Group, which is in charge of industry efforts to cope with the impact of their activities on the region."As a result, we got about 2,000 people. They wouldn't believe me when I told them that there weren't any jobs for them," he says.
Evanston has had a transient population of as many as 2,500, living in tents and campers while trying to find jobs on the oil and gas rigs. Some 70 to 80 percent of the jobs require specific skills, and small towns like Evanston do not have facilities to accommodate so many job seek ers.