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2013 March 4 - 12:00 am

Federal Program Helps Job-Seekers Find Energy Work

PITTSBURGH (AP) — One student was a homeless man with welding experience who slept in a tent throughout training. Two were brothers from the state of 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 U.S. 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. (Its website is shalenet.org.)

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.

Michael’s institution is in Williamsport, in the heart of Central Pennsylvania’s natural gas boom, but the ShaleNET program has local stakeholders, as well. Allegheny Conference on Community Development and various community colleges that host classes throughout the region are involved.

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 CDL truck driving 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 who heads the organization’s workplace initiative.

Those include jobs like 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 shale states like 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 the 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 is 7.9 percent.

Despite such immediate placement and the high salaries, parents in many parts of Pennsylvania still need to be convinced that an industry job straight out of high school is better than pursuing a college degree, organizers said.

“Hard sell is an understatement,” Fisher said. Scars of the regional steel collapse still color many career decisions, she said, and can make the industry work seem unpredictable.

In the first days of the program, the organizers also had trouble fielding a class of students who could pass a mandatory drug test, and the money allotted for the tests was quickly used up, Kohut said.

“The first two or three classes consumed that money,” he said. “It was killing us.”

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 program now asks interested students to pay for their own test, and the results have been much more self-selecting.

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.

The program was featured on a Fox News show and the phone has been ringing even more than usual, he said.

“Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, California — all over Pennsylvania and West Virginia,” Kohut said. “I’ve never seen the area codes that pop up.”

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