The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

World, nation, state

April 29, 2012

Gas drilling job-training programs popping up at community colleges

BINGHAMTON, N.Y. — Rick Allen moved to upstate New York to escape the rat race and tension of Washington, D.C., but when he arrived in his hometown, the 49-year-old electronics technician couldn’t find a job.

“I happened to walk into the workforce center and saw a sign on the wall for natural gas training,” Allen said. “I never knew anything about natural gas.” With encouragement from his daughter and a job counselor, he signed up for the 72-hour course at Corning Community College to augment his computer repair experience with knowledge of natural gas drilling. 

Within days of graduating, he landed a job as a computer technician for Superior Well Services in Owego, 65 miles south of Syracuse near the Pennsylvania border. 

“The Lord has blessed me with a good situation here,” said Allen, who’s working 80-hour weeks as a computer technician for a company that cements gas well casings. “It’s challenging, it’s new. I love it.”

In anticipation of the shale gas boom spreading northward from Pennsylvania, educators in New York have begun training programs giving workers the skills industry needs to fill entry-level positions.

Janet Hertzog of Broome Community College in Binghamton said the school is ready to start a three-week, intensive program to certify roustabouts, or general laborers on a drilling rig. “It’s tough work but it pays well, for someone willing to work 14-hour days for three-week stretches.”

The median salary for a roustabout is $38,000 but overtime can drive it higher. Geologists, who must have at least a four-year degree, start around $40,000 and can advance into six figures with experience.

Broome is one of five community colleges in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York participating in a coalition called ShaleNET. Funded by a three-year, $4.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, ShaleNET focuses on recruiting, training and placing people in high-priority, entry-level natural gas jobs.

A little farther west, Corning Community College began its natural gas industry course in March 2011 in partnership with Chesapeake Energy and other companies. About 80 people have taken the course, said Lori Gwin, a business training specialist at Corning. Students pay $975. Gwin did not know how many of those students have gotten industry jobs. 

Other public colleges and universities across the northeastern shale states are moving to add staff, academic majors or job-training courses in fields related to natural gas.

The University of Buffalo’s School of Law was the first school east of the Mississippi to offer a course on oil and gas law about a decade ago, and the University of Pittsburgh’s law school added the subject this spring. 

“There’s enormous interest among students,” said Kim Connolly, director of the environmental law department at Buffalo. “We’re going to add a full-time professor for oil and gas law due to the high demand.” 

Gary Lash, a geology professor at the State University of New York at Fredonia, said he hasn’t seen an increase in overall geology enrollment. “However, more students are expressing interest in shale geology since the Marcellus has focused attention on shale gas,” he said.

Lash and Penn State’s Terry Engelder, who published a paper in 2008 calculating the enormous amount of gas that could be extracted from the Marcellus Shale, have been credited with helping spur the shale gas rush in the massive formation which underlies parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. 

Lash said he’ll help set up a Shale Resources and Society Institute at the University at Buffalo next fall. The program will conduct peer-reviewed research and provide information to the public and policymakers on issues related to hydraulic fracturing.

New York hasn’t allowed new shale gas drilling using high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, since the state Department of Environmental Conservation began reviewing it in 2008. A coalition of opposition groups is pressing to ban it, saying water supplies would be threatened by fracking, which frees gas by injecting a well with huge volumes of chemically treated water.

Even if fracking never comes to New York, Hertzog said workers on both sides of the Pennsylvania border are eager to gain the skills to be hired on rigs in that state, where the industry is booming. The skills would also be applicable to jobs with natural gas utilities in New York.

New York’s four-year review has forced some jobs to leave the state, said Dennis Holbrook, executive vice president for Norse Energy, a smaller gas company operating almost exclusively in New York. Norse is a member of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, a trade group that already has worked with community colleges to promote education and training in essential industry skills. 

“It’s far better to hire locally,” Holbrook said. “You want to build up a base of support in the community.”

The ShaleNET curriculum was developed in conjunction with gas companies. According to the organization’s website, the drilling of a single well requires 400 people working in nearly 150 occupations. One of the criticisms made by industry critics is that many of the best-paying jobs are going to workers brought in from Texas and other big oil and gas states. ShaleNET aims to develop a well-trained local workforce. The Pennsylvania Labor Department counted about 28,000 industry jobs in the Marcellus in 2011.

The DEC’s impact review of shale gas drilling predicts that related construction employment will range from 4,408 to 17,634 jobs, depending on how quickly development ramps up. With the price of natural gas at a historic low due to an oversupply, development is expected to proceed slowly if DEC begins issuing drilling permits this year.

Industry critics say the job numbers are exaggerated and local employment will crash when well-drilling activity moves to other states.

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