Built on a Legacy
Natural gas programs continue long 'degrees that work' tradition
by Tom Speicher, writer/video editor. Photos by Larry D. Kauffman, except as credited.
Since retraining disabled veterans returning from World War I for employment in the industrial arts, Pennsylvania College of Technology and its predecessor institutions have a long history of meeting the fluctuating demands of business and industry.
That strong tradition is quite evident today with a variety of programs targeting the oil and natural gas industry, which has established a foothold throughout the state and Mid-Atlantic. Thanks to the college, incumbent workers and students of various ages and backgrounds have embarked on rewarding career prospects in the burgeoning sector.
"With our demonstrated commitment to meeting the needs of industry through our applied-technology curriculum and workforce-development initiatives, we are uniquely positioned to be a prime educational and training conduit for the natural gas industry," said Davie Jane Gilmour, college president.
"Many of our majors align with the professions required in natural gas development and operation," she continued. "We have tailored noncredit training and consulting services for the industry. The college has taken a lead role in developing and administering grant-funded natural gas career programs. Collectively, these efforts have benefited thousands of students and an industry that is key for continued economic development in Pennsylvania."
Natural gas is responsible for about a quarter of all energy consumed in the United States and is often found in shale – dense, sedimentary rock formations formed over millions of years that are typically a mile or more below surface. Advancements in technology, namely horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, have made it possible to extract considerable amounts of natural gas from shale. The Marcellus Shale, located under approximately two-thirds of Pennsylvania and five other states, is a vast reservoir of natural gas. Its capacity and proximity to major Northeast population centers have made it attractive in recent years for energy development.
Natural gas production in Pennsylvania more than quadrupled between
2009 and 2011.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, natural gas production in Pennsylvania "more than quadrupled" between 2009 and 2011, averaging nearly 3.5 billion cubic feet per day in 2011. To put that number in perspective, the American Gas Association estimates that 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas can meet the energy needs of 10,000-11,000 U.S. households for one year.
The natural gas boom has led to varied career opportunities. The life cycle of a Marcellus well requires approximately 420 individuals across 150 different occupations, according to the Pennsylvania Statewide Marcellus Shale Workforce Needs Assessment. Pennsylvanians perform many of those jobs. Recent studies indicate that nearly three-quarters of Marcellus workers are state residents.
"The natural gas industry provides high-value types of jobs, offering family-sustaining wages," said Thomas B. Murphy, co-director of the Penn State Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research. "I've been working as an outreach educator for more than 25 years, and these certainly are the most exciting years that I've spent in my career."
The college has enhanced this development with education and training programs geared to current workers in the field and to students in college and high school. The result should have a profound influence on the oil and natural gas workforce for years to come in Pennsylvania, as well as in other lucrative shale plays scattered throughout the United States and the world.
The cornerstone of the college's effort to connect with today's natural gas professionals is ShaleTEC, a partnership with Penn State Extension that provides a variety of career-focused resources to both industry and the community. Formerly known as the Marcellus Shale Education & Training Center, the name change reflects outreach to shale plays beyond the Marcellus region, such as the Utica Shale in western Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Through June 30, ShaleNET had served 8,616 people.
"Our overriding goal is to enhance local workforce opportunities by providing technical skills and research vital to the shale industry across the Appalachian Basin," said Tracy L. Brundage, assistant vice president for workforce and economic development at Penn College. "The partnership between the college and Penn State Extension enables ShaleTEC to stay closely connected to industry needs, recognize developing trends and quickly identify new opportunities for local businesses and industry."
ShaleTEC offers an array of noncredit training and consulting services at its headquarters in the Center for Business & Workforce Development on the college's main campus in Williamsport. The college's North Campus in Wellsboro, Penn State Extension offices and various Penn State campus sites are also used for the nearly 500 courses ShaleTEC offers annually.
Safety-related training courses tend to be the most popular, according to Brundage, along with an introductory course, Shale Development and Production Overview, which covers natural gas extraction from drilling through production.
"It's an excellent foundational course for people moving into the industry, incumbent workers of gas-related companies, supply-chain companies and the general public," Brundage said.
ShaleTEC also offers a variety of more advanced technical programs to prepare recent hires and current workers with the various phases of natural gas production. In 2011-12, more than 4,500 individuals participated in ShaleTEC courses.
"Core curriculum and research developed through the ShaleTEC partnership has helped set the standard for understanding and responding to the needs of industry, government, and local businesses and individuals," Brundage said. "ShaleTEC is the recognized leader across the Appalachian Basin and beyond for high-quality oil and natural gas training."
New training programs are under way at the college's latest addition to its natural gas portfolio: the Energy Technology Education Center at the Schneebeli Earth Science Center near Allenwood. Unveiled in May, the ETEC is a joint venture among the college, the Lycoming County Department of Public Safety and natural gas industry partners. More than 45 industry and nonindustry donors provided funds, equipment or in-kind services for its development and construction.
"The site features facilities and equipment that support training for emergency response personnel by providing hands-on instruction that enables them to understand and implement effective emergency-response practices, the kind they may utilize at natural gas field drilling and production sites," Brundage said.
The ETEC mimics emergency scenarios with several live fire props. Initial training at the ETEC featured a simulated lightning strike, a potential methane leak and multiple mock injuries.
"The site provides hands-on, applied technology training for the industry, which fits the mission of the college," Brundage said.
The ETEC also has been approved by the Pennsylvania Fire Academy to provide local level/county firefighting training to all 67 counties in the commonwealth.
While the ETEC is a physical site where first-hand training occurs, ShaleNET is a program that facilitates entry to the oil and natural gas field. The multistate initiative connects local workforces to six high-priority industry occupations: derrick operators, rotary drill operators, service unit operators, roustabouts, welding and brazing operators, and truck drivers.
Funded by a three-year, $4.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration, ShaleNET presents candidates with an overview of available positions, screens them for vacancy matches and identifies training programs and facilities they can use to help secure employment in the field. Training programs are subsequently made available followed by job search and placement assistance. The initiative primarily serves the unemployed, dislocated and incumbent workers, low-income workers, youth, and veterans.
Workforce Development & Continuing Education at Penn College partnered with Westmoreland County Community College near Pittsburgh to obtain the federal grant and assist with the program's implementation throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and New York. The college's ongoing involvement centers on curriculum development, training, project management and coordination services for Workforce Investment Boards. Through June 30, ShaleNET had served 8,616 people.
"Penn College and Westmoreland County Community College have succeeded in building a four-state network of training providers and Workforce Investment Boards that have been responsible for meeting the program's goals throughout the Appalachian Basin," said Larry L. Michael, assistant vice president for workforce development and special projects.
"Being a founding member of ShaleNET has allowed the college to continue its leadership role of providing quality training and educational services to the natural gas industry," Michael said. "Through this initiative, we train other trainers, standardize curriculum for six high-priority occupations and work on a national basis in expanding our curriculum offerings."
This fall, the college was awarded a $14.96 million federal grant to lead ShaleNET U.S., a consortium initiative that seeks to develop and implement standardized, "stackable" certificate and associate-degree programs serving high-demand occupational categories in the oil and natural gas and associated supply-chain industries.
In addition to Penn College, the ShaleNET U.S. consortium members are: Westmoreland County Community College, Youngwood; Stark State College, North Canton, Ohio; and Navarro College, Corsicana, Texas.
With a grant from the National Science Foundation, the college also is enhancing its credit offerings within majors related to natural gas. The result is a talent pipeline linking today's college and secondary students with tomorrow's enriching career opportunities.
The Natural Gas Technician Education Partnership grant awards approximately $300,000 annually to the college to administer curriculum, professional development and career-awareness initiatives aligned with the oil and natural gas sector. This is the third year of the grant, which is provided through the Advanced Technological Education program.
"This funding has provided the opportunity for Penn College to orient faculty to the needs of the natural gas industry and has accelerated the incorporation of curriculum enhancements to several courses that directly apply to skill sets required," Michael said. "We offer many degrees that support the exploration and production needs of the industry, and we have now been able to include specific technologies and lab exercises to support those needs."
While it's common for individuals without a formal postsecondary education to secure viable employment in the natural gas field, higher education in the form of trade/industrial certifications and two- and four-year degrees is recommended for optimal career flexibility and growth. The college meets that need with nearly two dozen majors related to the industry, ranging from bachelor's degrees in manufacturing engineering technology and construction management to associate degrees in on-site power generation and surveying technology.
The NSF grant focuses on two-year technical majors at the college, including electronics, welding, civil engineering technology, forestry and computer aided drafting.
"The idea isn't to create new majors, but rather to look at the needs of industry and then look at our current curriculum across the college and enhance it so students understand the career path and technological needs of the natural gas industry," said Eric K. Albert, associate professor of machine tool technologies and automated manufacturing and the lead faculty member for the grant. "For example, in electronics, we're looking at extending how we teach control systems and sensing systems, because they are very special in the natural gas industry."
The grant has facilitated the creation of courses and the purchase of instructional equipment linked to natural gas. Albert said he expects the grant to "directly impact a dozen majors and several hundred Penn College students" by the end of its third year.
The benefits of the grant extend to high school juniors and seniors through Penn College NOW, a dual-enrollment program that allows students to take Penn College technical courses at a reduced tuition rate while in high school. Approved high school teachers at the students' high schools or career and technical education centers teach the courses.
Through workshops and conferences, the grant has exposed many of those high school teachers to the skill sets required to work in natural gas. Course curriculum also has been enhanced to reflect industry needs.
More than 500 secondary students have enrolled in Penn College NOW courses that lead directly to associate degrees and employment possibilities in natural gas. Such Penn College NOW courses include electronics, CAD, welding and information technology.
"Increasing the pipeline of students interested in natural gas careers is critical if the industry is going to find the Pennsylvania technicians it needs," said Jeannette F. Carter, director of the Outreach for K-12 Office, which administers the Penn College NOW program. "NSF funding is helping us through curriculum enhancements and training of the Penn College NOW teachers by our college faculty."
The college's continual effort to spark workforce growth isn't lost on industry. Just like employers of past generations, the oil and natural gas sector is appreciative of the college's proactive role in educating and training the worker of today and tomorrow.
"The various programs and training opportunities Penn College offers have developed a strong local workforce to support our Pennsylvania operations," said Mary B. Wolf, government relations adviser for Anadarko Petroleum Corp. Anadarko is one of the world's largest independent oil and natural gas exploration and production companies.
"Penn College has helped our contractors understand and meet our expectations and high standards, especially in the areas of environment, health and safety," she said. "The four Penn College graduates who are part of our local team further demonstrate the value of our Penn College relationship."