HACKBERRY, La. — Theresa Horner was once a stay-at-home mom with a degree in criminal justice that she wasn't interested in putting to use.
Looking to try her hand at a new skill, Horner decided to take a welding course at SOWELA Technical Community College not far from here in Lake Charles. She graduated at the top of her class in November 2015.
Then just over a year ago, she landed a job with Chicago Bridge & Iron, a global energy infrastructure company with more than 40,000 employees.
Today, Horner works as a structural welder at the Cameron LNG Liquefaction Project under CB&I. That includes a liquefaction facility and 36-mile natural gas pipeline that goes through Louisiana's Gulf Coast region, which will be exporting natural gas primarily to Japan come 2019.
"There are just all these different people, with different crafts working together as a team," Horner, 34, said of the job site, where more than 10,000 people have worked since 2014. "You have to co-exist in this environment — it's unlike any other job."
The construction industry has undergone a boom in hiring in the post Great Recession era, adding 1.3 million jobs in the past six years, according to the Associated General Contractors of America.
That growth is poised to continue under the Trump administration, if the president makes good on his promises to invest in infrastructure spending. As a candidate, Donald Trump proposed a targeted investment to fill a funding gap of some $1 trillion the National Association of Manufacturers estimated the U.S. would face.
Just last week at a Republican retreat in Philadelphia, Trump reiterated his campaign promises to increase infrastructure investment. "We believe the world's best country should have the world's best infrastructure," he said. "We will build new roads, and highways, and tunnels and airports and railroads across the nation. We will fix our existing product before we build anything brand new."
Since taking office he's also used executive action to advance the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipeline projects
Overall, the construction industry is feeling optimistic, and Trump has caught its attention. A survey released in January from the general contractors association found 73 percent of firms plan to expand their payrolls this year thanks to strong demand from the public and private sectors. This is the most optimistic outlook in seven years.
"There's certainly the potential for seeing a lot more construction," said Kenneth Simonson, the association's chief economist. "But we are not really sure yet how that money would be deployed and equally important, is where it would come from."
Construction employment set an all-time high of 7.7 million jobs in April 2006, but then lost 2.3 million positions, or 30 percent of its workforce, hitting a low of 5.4 million jobs in January 2011, according to the association.
"Partly because the industry's job losses were so steep, long-lasting and did not end until a year after the rest of the economy began adding workers in early 2010, it's been hard to find experienced workers, or convince new entrants that construction offers a secure and high-paying career," Simonson said. He added that 73 percent of firms are struggling to hire, thanks to the black eye the recession made on the industry.
The job losses suffered during the recession have created a skills gap within construction, one that companies like CB&I are trying to fill. The company has partnered with community colleges, vocational and technical schools to create customized workforce development programs in Louisiana, and is increasing its military recruiting as well. The graduation rate for these training programs is at 87 percent, and offers have been made to at least 75 percent of those who participated, according to CB&I CEO Philip Asherman.
"These are good-paying jobs," he said. "They're not minimum-wage jobs, the average mechanical rate on the Gulf Coast is roughly $32 to $33 an hour plus benefits. They also have the opportunity for career advancement into field supervision and project management."
Thanks in part to growth on the Gulf Coast with energy infrastructure projects on the rise, CB&I plans to add more than 15,000 workers this year in the area. Horner is thrilled to be working in her new field, and now makes more money than her husband.
"I love coming out here and welding all day long — it's a dream day for me," she said. "You can make some really good money and be able to support a family, and heck, even be independent if you're that kind of woman."