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Colleges team up for quick training in shale

Mar. 25, 2013 - 08:29AM   |  
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One student was a homeless man with welding experience who slept in a tent throughout training. Two were brothers from Indiana who drove to Pennsylvania and stayed in a motel room for four weeks. Another was a veteran just home from being stationed in Korea.

They came from different backgrounds but all had one thing in common: They wanted work in the fast-growing, high-paying energy industry.

It’s easy to see why Larry Michael, at the Pennsylvania College of Technology, said, “There is no typical profile” of a ShaleNET student.

ShaleNET is a job-placement program funded through the Department of Labor that has helped men and women find work among the hundreds of coveted positions involved in the natural gas industry. The program, which has many training hubs and educational partners across Pennsylvania and other states, began in 2010 but recently received a new injection of federal funding.

So far, nearly 2,000 ShaleNET students have been placed in shale-related jobs nationally. More than 150 occupations are associated with drilling one well.

ShaleNET’s new round of $14.9 million in funding, announced last September, is being used this year to add training for more stable career paths beyond those involving new well construction and to partner with organizations near shale drilling across the country.

But the expanded initiative faces the same headwinds that its abbreviated version did: finding students who can pass a mandatory drug test; placing graduates at companies far away from Pennsylvania; and convincing parents who think matriculating at college is always better than stepping onto a rig.

Since its inception, ShaleNET has offered classes that range from commercial driver’s license certifications to Roustabout 101 courses that include rig visits and a lesson on how gas gets from the ground to the home.

The new money infusion to the program dwarfs the initial $4.9 million received in 2010 to focus on noncredit classes that train future roustabouts and rig workers. The new funds will help subsidize certificate and two-year degree courses that move beyond the well to include higher-paying, more stable positions in the processing and treatment of gas.

The new wave of programs being implemented this year will focus on gas processing and treatment stages — essentially, anything that happens after the gas comes out of the ground. It’s a job-placement emphasis operating under this philosophy: Rigs move, but pipelines are forever.

Companies recruiting workers from the ShaleNET program have said there’s an increased demand for these so-called “midstream” and “downstream” positions, said Laura Fisher, a senior vice president at the Allegheny Conference on Community Development who heads the organization’s workplace initiative.

Those include such jobs as corrosion technician or positions at specialty metal companies expanding their portfolio to include shale work.

ShaleNET’s partners include schools in Ohio and Texas, where gas drilling is also riding a wave of development brought on by hydraulic fracturing technology.

In fact, students trained in Pennsylvania are often flown to such shale states as North Dakota for work, said Byron Kohut, the western hub director for the program, based at Westmoreland County Community College.

“It’s just the nature of the business” to transport workers from state to state, Fisher said.

Several years ago, when drilling in the Marcellus Shale region began, one of the chief criticisms of the industry was its importing of trained workers from Texas and Oklahoma to Pennsylvania. Now that training programs are in place here, the ShaleNET organizers have found that students will often be flown to whatever state — and shale formation — needs them fastest.

Workers in North Dakota’s energy business made an average salary of $91,400 last year, and that state’s unemployment rate hovers around 3 percent. Both the Pennsylvania rate and the national average were 7.9 percent during the same period.

Given the heavy machinery and safety concerns of many shale-related jobs, companies can sometimes be more forgiving of a lengthy prison sentence than positive drug results, Kohut said.

Workers at gas companies must pass a drug test when they interview for a job, and ShaleNET doesn’t want to graduate students who can’t get a job after the training ends.

The work can be long and require time away from home, but the prospect of a job in an otherwise shaky economy has kept ShaleNET organizers busy.

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