NEW MILFORD, Pa. – Oil companies worried about finding enough workers to install pipe, monitor wells and repair equipment that bores underground may find their solution in educational programs now popping up in the drilling hotbeds of Texas, Pennsylvania and North Dakota.
There, private companies are partnering with colleges to set up highly specialized programs for training new oil workers.
One of the newest entries is Lackawanna College’s School of Petroleum & Natural Gas, which sits atop the Marcellus Shale in New Milford, Pa., and has a curriculum shaped by the companies drilling all around it.
Dan Dinges, CEO of Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas, which donated $2.5 million to the school in April, said that it could be a model for creating training programs across the nation that are uniquely tailored to the needs of nearby oil companies. In some cases, the companies are drilling in areas without a long oil industry history, so they’re training the first generation of oil field workers.
This “is going to create an environment for young adults that want to be a participant in the oil and gas business, to be able to have a place to learn a skill set and be able to go out and be a contributing part of our business,” Dinges said during a recent open house at the school.
“It’s hands-on experience. It’s what we as an operator out in the field love to see: somebody who can connect the dots, and when they show up on a location, they understand the equipment, they understand what they are looking at and they know how to perform in the field.”
Unlike traditional four-year bachelor’s programs in petroleum engineering, geology and other subjects geared to the oil industry, Lackawanna College puts students through two rigorous years of classroom learning and hands-on training in day-to-day oil field jobs.
For students ranging in age from their late teens to their 50s, the reward can be jobs in the field and associate degrees in disciplines including petroleum and natural gas measurement and natural gas compression technology.
John Moore, 24, from Dimock, Pa., trained in well tending and as a measurement specialist, said he appreciated the college’s focus on technology and practical skills, on top of some math and physics fundamentals.
Ben Davenport, 19, of Montrose, Pa., who has completed his first year at the college, said he was lured to the program because of the many opportunities in oil and gas. “It’s a growing industry,” he said. “It’s a big thing, and I wanted to be part of it.”
In designing the school, Lackawanna College staff looked at the hiring needs of oil and gas companies active in eastern Pennsylvania and found a dearth of petroleum technologists and compression technicians – then set out to create degrees designed for those jobs.
Lackawanna College President Mark Volk said that after several oil companies and services firms working in the state reviewed a draft curriculum, school officials honed the program and got industry representatives to commit to helping update it periodically.
Cabot’s donation was its single largest ever, and the largest that Lackawanna College has received. But other companies, including Baker Hughes, Surface Equipment Corp., and Weir Oil & Gas, have given the school oil field equipment and sent guest lecturers.
Lackawanna College’s approach was scrutinized during a U.S. House hearing last month, as lawmakers study whether there are enough workers to keep up with surging domestic oil and gas development.
That’s an especially big challenge as drilling rigs target areas outside the traditional oil patch and as older workers retire from the industry, said Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo.
“Historically, energy production has been seen in limited geographic areas where there are established education and training programs in place,” he said.
Even in areas with long histories of energy development, colleges are creating new programs to steep would-be oil workers in the nuances of pressure control, hydraulics and field water management.
The multicampus Texas State Technical College system plans an oil field mock-up to teach truck driving skills needed to obtain commercial driver’s licenses. Those are hot tickets in the Permian Basin and the Eagle Ford Shale, which face shortages of commercial truck drivers that can heave water, sand and other supplies from site to site.
And, like Lackawanna College, the Texas system has partnered with energy companies to make sure its training fits the industry’s needs.
Marlene McMichael, the college’s associate vice chancellor for government affairs, told the congressional panel that while some students may enroll straight out of high school, many are nontraditional students looking for new opportunities after losing jobs. Others want to earn formal certificates to back up previous work or military experience.
But she said that even the most robust training programs are up against a big challenge: convincing people to pursue technical jobs in the first place.
“Despite the fact that technical jobs provide good wages and offer excellent career paths, there remains a widespread bias which pushes students away from technical fields in favor of more academic educational pathways,” McMichael said. “The result is that, today, too few students are entering technical programs, and the pipeline of students coming to technical colleges from high schools is not sufficient to meet industry’s demand for trained workers.”