By Dana Vogel, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
With Penn State University researchers projecting that the Marcellus Shale natural gas industry will create or support about 88,000 jobs in Pennsylvania by the end of this year, it’s no surprise a number of vocational schools, technical colleges and universities across the state are trying to get workers ready for at least some of those jobs.
In Western Pennsylvania, a four- to six-week course aimed at training natural gas and oil technicians is being offered at Steel Center Area Vocational Technical School in Jefferson Hills and the Western Area Career and Technology Center in Canonsburg. The courses are taught in conjunction with PA Training Consultants, a firm that provides equipment, curriculum and instructors to vocational and technical schools.
Later this month, the firm will add programs at vo-tech schools in Armstrong, Beaver and Greene counties. Another program will begin in Potter County in September.
Western Pennsylvanians will have another option in late August when Westmoreland County Community College begins a three-week natural gas roustabout training program. The program will be free for participants, thanks to a nearly $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor.
Students must enroll in the community college program through Pennsylvania Career Link and go through a rigorous selection process. Students who complete the class will be eligible for positions such as derrick operator, rotary drill operator, service unit operator, roustabout, welding and brazing operator, and truck driver.
“The grant is a big deal. It shows a major commitment to quickly developing a local work force,” said James Hayes, director of work force and economic development at the college.
To the east, the Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport offers a similar noncredit program called Fit 4 Natural Gas, which started in February and serves as a model for WCCC’s upcoming program. So far, about 70 students have completed that course.
In all, 400 students have been trained at Penn College for work in the industry through other noncertificate programs such as a commercial driver’s license course, a welding program and a safety program for natural gas and oil, said Jeffrey Lorson, director of work force training for the college’s Marcellus Shale Education Training Center.
Other schools in Pennsylvania that aim to train students for the Marcellus Shale industry include Lackawanna College in Scranton, offering an associate degree in natural gas technology; Keystone College in La Plume, Lackawanna County, adding natural gas courses to its bachelor’s degree in environmental resource management; and Johnson College in Scranton, offering a noncredit welding program that focuses on the natural gas industry.
Dennis Dull, vice president of operations at PA Training Consultants, said a goal of the program at Western Area and Steel Center is to allow unemployed or underemployed workers to return to work quickly.
“They can’t wait two years for a job,” he said.
The program is attractive to students such as Daniel Wehar, of Beaver Falls, who last week was in the fourth week of a six-week program. He formerly worked for Diebold Inc. in product sales support but was let go during company downsizing after working there for more than 21 years.
Kevin Raffle of Uniontown, also a student in the six-week program at Steel Center, found himself in a similar situation when his former employer, Sony Electronics, moved its facility overseas. Mr. Raffle said he considered becoming an electrician but chose to enroll in the natural gas and oil training program because of the promising job market. “It’s going to be overwhelming,” he said.
The 40-hours-a-week program is offered during the day or evening and includes earning a commercial driver’s license. Students who already have commercial driver’s licenses can complete the course in four weeks.
Students take 36 tests on topics from drilling to well tending and safety. The program is designed to teach the basics of the industry, making it easier for companies to train new workers for particular jobs.
The Steel Center program graduated its first class of 10 students in February. Since then, about 100 students have completed the course and another 100 have graduated from the course at Western Area, which began in August. Only one person has failed to complete the class, Mr. Dull said.
About 80 percent of Steel Center’s graduates were hired by 40 drilling companies.
Tuition is $7,995 for the six-week class and $5,980 for four weeks for students who already have commercial driver’s licenses. Students who are unemployed due to outsourcing, like Mr. Raffle, sometimes are able to pay for their education with money from Trade Readjustment Allowances, provided by the U.S. Department of Labor.
Starting salary is $13 to $19 per hour, and natural gas and oil technicians usually work about 65 to 70 hours each week.
Penn State’s study, issued in May and titled “The Economic Impacts of the Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Play: An Update,” also predicted that by the end of this year utility companies will have invested $8.8 billion in the Marcellus Shale industry in Pennsylvania alone.
Dana Vogel: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1953.
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