Job seekers, many of them from the energy sector and out of work, flooded the Cajundome Convention Center for a career fair Thursday, where the booming petrochemical industry was looking for hands.
Two hours into the event, the number of applicants looking for steady work had surpassed 1,000. By the time it ended at 1 p.m., about 1,800 had filled out applications and given employers résumés, said Ryan LaGrange and Stacey Zawacki, both with the Lafayette Economic Development Authority, one of several organizations that sponsored the Industrial Trades Career Fair.
LaGrange said some applicants were lined up at the door at 6 a.m., three hours before it started.
“We’re glad to have the companies from the Lake Charles and Baton Rouge areas help our people find work until the price of oil rises,” said Gregg Gothreaux, CEO and president of LEDA.
The scene was reminiscent of oil and gas job fairs in south Louisiana two years ago, when the price of oil was over $100 a barrel and some companies were offering signing bonuses for qualified, drug-free, applicants.
A plunge in the oil price that began in mid-2014 led to thousands of workers losing their jobs. On Thursday, U.S. benchmark crude scheduled for April delivery sold for $34 to $35 a barrel, according to Bloomberg.
But that’s not the case in the Lake Charles and Baton Rouge-to-New Orleans areas, which have a heavy presence of refining and petrochemical plants that prosper when the price of oil and natural gas is low. The region south of Lake Charles, in Cameron Parish, also is booming with construction of liquid natural gas terminals.
Rana Payne, a recruiter for Pala Group Inc., was looking for crane operators, pipefitters and welders for a big project slated for April at the Shell plant in Geismar. Pala Group is a 44-year-old company engaged in industrial construction.
“It’s good to see everybody,” she said, looking at the throngs of men and women clutching résumés and waiting patiently. “I wish we had a spot for everyone.”
Wilfred Barry, who runs the SJB Group, was looking for experienced land surveyors, jobs that have a narrow range of expertise requiring skills possessed by few employed in oil and gas. Barry said one in 30 applicants Thursday had some sort of survey experience. “Every once in a while we hit a rare” one, he said, referring to someone with just the experience needed to work for SJB Group. Then Barry added, “Lafayette’s hurting. … There are people here who just want a job.”
Shaun Oakley, of Opelousas, hasn’t been officially laid off from his job as a rigger at Lafayette-based EPS. Oakley normally works on offshore production platforms owned by Anadarko Petroleum and on Ensco drilling rigs.
“I’ve been home for two weeks now,” he said, and such gaps between paydays make it hard to provide for his wife and two children. “I’ll do whatever it takes to take care of my family.”
Georgia-Pacific’s operations at Port Hudson, where recognizable brands are made — including Brawny paper towels and Quilted Northern “Ultra Soft” toilet paper — needs production workers, human resources intern Elizabeth Moss said.
Moss, who graduates from LSU in May, said the plant, located north of Zachary, was looking for 24 workers to work four days a week, 12 hours a day. The starting pay, she said, was $16 an hour.
Tina Johnstone, who manages the Lafayette office of the Louisiana Workforce Commission, said there is some training that is quickly available. Johnstone said LWC and the South Louisiana Community College offer short-term certification for scaffold erectors, which are in demand in industrial maintenance and construction projects. The courses and certifications are free to those being trained.
Gothreaux, who runs LEDA, said the robust turnout Thursday was similar to two seminars LEDA and other groups sponsored in February. But those seminars — one in Cameron, the other in Lafayette — were for the managers and owners of fabrication companies and other firms that have been laid low by oil’s downturn.
Both drew standing-room-only audiences of people for sessions to learn how they might qualify to work on the ongoing LNG projects in Cameron Parish. The job fair Thursday was sponsored by LEDA, Louisiana Economic Development, the Louisiana Workforce Commission and One Acadiana.