This story originally appeared on Houston Public Media.
In Bay City, south of Houston and 20 miles north of the Gulf Coast, Rudolph Henry, a technology engineer, has seen firsthand what has happened to good jobs in the manufacturing sector.
“I spent 28 years in a steel manufacturing plant in Rosenberg, Texas. We made small diameter steel tubing mainly for the petrochemical industry,” Henry said.
But in 2002, that steel pipe factory north of here closed, like so many plants facing cut-throat competition from overseas. Henry never again worked in a factory. But here’s the thing: he’s now teaching a new generation of workers how to work in a factory.
“It’s like your life has come to a full circle,” Henry said, sitting in the offices of Wharton County Junior College’s branch in Bay City. Henry leads the college’s industrial technology program.
“We are in an area where industry is expanding. And I think industry is coming back as it used to be,” Henry said.
Inside what had been a Kmart, the college has built classrooms and with the help of corporate donors, has filled them with shiny new industrial equipment. Students learn how to weld, build electric motors and how to work with steel pipe; the kind of pipe Henry used to help make years ago and which now could be re-making the economy of Bay City.
A few miles from the junior college on the outskirts of town is what could be transformative. Rising from a field is a construction project costing more than $1.5 billion.
As seen from a catwalk high above the ground floor, big concrete mixer trucks look almost as small as toys, driving around inside the building which now covers an area as big as 20 football fields.
“This is one building, one roof, 25 acres big, and eight floors tall,” said German Cura, who runs the North American operations for a global company called Tenaris.
Tenaris is one of the world’s biggest makers of steel pipe for the oil and gas drilling industry. But previously, the pipe it supplied to oil fields in Texas was made in Tenaris’s factories in Argentina and Romania.
Cura drives around the perimeter of the site and explains why Tenaris picked Bay City and decided to continue with the project even though low oil prices mean drilling has plummeted.