O'Neal's Growth and Hiring Plans

Demand for Shale Gas Spurs Hiring at O'Neal

The ripple effects of the shale gas boom are being felt in Greenville, causing a firm here to launch new efforts to hire more engineers.

O'Neal, Inc., which is seeing a rise in chemical plant construction projects, has started a campaign to more than double its base of process chemical engineers and possibly acquire engineering firms, said Kevin Bean, president and CEO of the more than 38-year-old integrated design and construction firm.

"We're also trying to add ancillary services and capabilities based on what we see as our clients' needs and what we're anticipating as our clients' future needs and demands," said Brian Gallagher, O'Neal's director of marketing.

The company attributes the trend it's seeing in chemical work to the inexpensive cost of shale gas, and that companies are taking into account the Southeast's lower cost of living and non-union labor.

The American Chemistry Council, in its Year End 2013 Chemical Industry Situation and Outlook, said shale gas and the surge in natural gas liquids supply has helped move the U.S. from being a high-cost producer of key petrochemicals and resins to among the lowest cost producers globally.

As a result, exports are surging, capital investment is exploding and, for the first time since 1999, the U.S. chemical industry is seeing job growth, the ACC report said.

Kevin Swift, chief economist of the American Chemistry Council, said the U.S. is now "the most attractive place in the world to invest in chemical manufacturing."

The Southeast and O'Neal are among those benefiting from such investments.  Since 2010, O'Neal has tripled its revenue, Bean said.

"We came out of the recession very, very strong," he said.  "We've added 120 people and we doubled the size of our construction group.

"We're going to continue that effort, but it's becoming increasingly hard to attract these process chemical engineers and technical people, so we're looking to see if we can't get aggressive there."

The firm has been successful recruiting people directly, Bean said, but to make the big changes it wants, acquiring companies that have process engineers, mechanical engineers or technical people is "a definite possibility."

"That's a different strategy than what we've been using since our existence," he said.  "We're going to go where the best technical resources are if that means we have to start an office."

The company has about 40 process chemical engineers.  And while adding process chemical engineers is a key focus, "we're pretty much focused across the whole gamut, on the technical and the construction side," Bean said.