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Industrial-service firm sees a blue-collar bounce

The fall of the ‘new’ economy has sparked a renewed interest in ‘old’ skilled jobs, and industrial-engineering firm Matrix Service Co. has been one the driving forces. — By CNBC’s Mike Hegedus
/ Source: CNBC

There was a time when the U.S. economy was based — figuratively and literally — on working your butt off.

HOWEVER, WHEN IT became more profitable to sit on them, we did. It created a shortage of workers in the trades, and put a crimp in the industrial services business. Now these firms are hammering it out.

At Tulsa, Okla.-based Matrix Service Co., workers look like pictures from the 1950s, a time when finding skilled metal workers, pipe fitters and welders was easy — there were waiting lists for apprenticeship programs. Then something happened.

‘Young people could get into a business where they could sit at a desk and pound on a computer for 25 dollars an hour in an air conditioned office, and they really weren’t interested in working the trades and working with their hands,” said Matrix CEO Brad Vetal.

But now all things old are new again, or at least current. The fall of the ‘new’ economy has sparked a renewed interest in ‘old’ skilled jobs, a trend that Vetal is witnessing first hand. His company builds things — big things.

“Civil work, structural steel work, mechanical piping work, boiler work, electrical work, heavy rigging transport,” Vetal said.

“Our customers are Fortune 500 companies that continuously invest in their processes and products,” said Frank Hake, who recently sold his Philadelphia-based company to Matrix and now serves as a consultant in the Northeast.

Hake has also witnessed a surge of interest in the trades of late, and seen a series of new EPA regulations that as they are implemented by mandate through 2008 at refineries around the country, will provide a steady and increasing work load for the 20 billion dollar industrial-services sector.

“Each refinery is required to spend $150 million to $250 million just in capital equipment to … produce low-sulfur diesel and gas.’

Along with retrofitting, Matrix is involved with power plant construction and the upgrading of standing facilities at both chemical plants and refineries. Somebody has to build and maintain those big tanks and the pipes that carry stuff in and out of them, and probably will need to keep doing that for a while.

‘I think for national-security interests, we’ll always have the basic infrastructure of refining, power generation, as well as some kind of manufacturing,’ Hake said.