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Columbia Gas pulling workers from other states amid tight labor market

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 9/29/2018 By Katie Johnston

It will take an army of workers to replace and rebuild natural gas pipelines in the Merrimack Valley, from construction crews to inspectors to translators fluent in Spanish, Portuguese, and Vietnamese.

But with the energy industry suffering from a labor shortage, and the overall job market incredibly tight, where will this army come from?

Columbia Gas of Massachusetts said it will need nearly 1,300 workers to replace 48 miles of pipes in the next two months following a string of fires and explosions that left one dead, two dozen injured, and thousands without gas service. To build this workforce, the utility company has been calling on gas contractors it partners with in Massachusetts and in other places served by its parent company, NiSource Inc.: Indiana, Maryland, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

More than 700 workers who have been federally approved for pipeline work are cycling through Columbia Gas’s training center in Shrewsbury this week, where their credentials are being verified and they are learning the specifics of the job at hand.

Demand for gas workers has been rising as pipeline projects ramp up around the country to replace aging pipes. At the same time, roughly a quarter of employees in the gas, electricity, and nuclear power sector are expected to retire in the next several years, according to the US Department of Energy.

In 2015, Columbia Gas president Steve Bryant told the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities that approximately three-quarters of its employees were in their first five years or last decade of employment, and not much has changed since then, the company said.

In Massachusetts, which has one of the oldest gas distribution systems in the country, the need for gas workers is particularly acute. The majority of the pipes being replaced in the Merrimack Valley predate a 1970 regulation that banned the installation of bare steel and cast iron pipe, prompting a switch to high-strength plastic, which is more flexible and corrosion-resistant. A 2014 state law requires utility companies to replace all unprotected steel or cast iron pipe within 20 years.

In addition, 1,250 union gas workers have been locked out by National Grid since late June over a contract dispute; they have been replaced by hundreds of contractors who might otherwise be available to work on the Columbia Gas project.

Still, the industry is in a much better position than it was a decade ago, after impending waves of retirements and an influx of projects forced the industry to recruit and train more workers, said Christina Sames, vice president of operations and engineering at the American Gas Association. A 2011 focus on gas pipeline safety by then-US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood accelerated replacement projects across the country, including in Massachusetts.

As a result, Sames said, many training programs have popped up in the past few years.

NiSource has opened four training centers since 2015, including the one in Shrewsbury, which launched earlier this year.

For the past three years, Bunker Hill Community College has offered a two-year gas utility technology degree, in collaboration with Dorchester contracting company Feeney Brothers Utility Services.

Becoming qualified for pipeline replacement work can take anywhere from a week for simpler tasks, like laying pipe in a ditch, to several years for more complex jobs, such as welding, according to the American Gas Association. And everyone who works on the pipeline must pass an operator qualification test or be overseen by someone who has.

The project in the Merrimack Valley will require extensive work both in the ground and at people’s homes and businesses. The 1,300 workers Columbia is bringing in to rebuild the system will be installing pipes, customer service lines, and meters. A separate group of plumbers and electricians will be doing safety inspections “behind the meter” on house gas lines and appliances.

With the right number of workers, replacing 48 miles of pipe by mid-November shouldn’t be a problem, according to the American Gas Association. After a house explosion in Dallas killed a 12-year-old girl earlier this year — leading to service being cut off for 2,800 residents — 21 miles of pipeline was replaced in 21 days.

Utilities have mutual aid agreements that allow them to help each other when disaster strikes, and a number of local utility companies sent workers to respond in the immediate aftermath of the disaster in Greater Lawrence, which has left 8,600 homes and businesses without gas service. But currently, no other utility companies are working on Columbia’s pipeline replacement, and there are no plans to bring any in.

After the disaster in the Lawrence area, Eversource — which Governor Charlie Baker put in charge of the initial recovery effort — put its projects on hold for six days to help with the recovery. With all of the pipeline work going on around the state, demand for workers was high even before the explosions, said Kathy Laflash, chair of the New England Gas Workers Alliance and president of United Steelworkers Local 12004, which represents 260 Eversource workers.

“Our membership is out straight,” she said. “We pretty much work six days a week.”

Brett Saber and Chad Hughes listened during a Columbia Gas training session in Shrewsbury. © Barry Chin/Globe Staff Brett Saber and Chad Hughes listened during a Columbia Gas training session in Shrewsbury.

The locked-out National Grid unions, which have hundreds of qualified workers with time on their hands, said they have reached out to Columbia Gas to offer their assistance, but the company said it has no plans to engage them.

If the need arises, however, there are plenty of utilities lined up to help.

“If they want national mutual aid, there are a number of companies willing to send crews from all over the country,” said Sames of the American Gas Association. “It’s in the industry’s best interest to do this.”

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