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Utica Upstream Conference: Workers Needed

Sara Klein | GateHouse Media

Published: May 9, 2017 1:46 PM

The natural gas is available, pipelines to move it are in the works, and big plans are afoot for electrical and petrochemical plants that will use it – but the North American shale industry could face setbacks because of a shortage that only humans can fill.

That was the sobering news at the April 5 Utica Upstream conference held in North Canton, Ohio, when Dan Schweitzer, director of Stark State College’s ShaleNET and oil and gas technologies programs, presented about the scarcity of well-trained workers for the shale industry’s future.

Schweitzer said projects such as PTT Global’s multi-million-dollar ethane cracker plant, slated for construction in Dilles Bottom, Ohio, have remained on the drawing board while companies figure out how to find the workforce needed to operate and maintain those facilities.

According to data Schweitzer presented from the Underground Contractors Workforce Alliance, 5,750 additional crews for U.S. pipeline construction projects will be needed by 2020, and 11,000 will be needed by 2030.

While labor crews in 2008 were staffed with workers who had more than five years of experience, current crews are diluted with workers who have less than a year of training, a situation he pointed out is important when safety on the job is a prime concern.

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“All pipeline projects have abnormal incidents. If you have someone who doesn’t have experience, they might not recognize them or respond to them properly,” he explained.

Schweitzer explained that technical colleges have provided a pipeline of students to colleges, universities and unions, which have in the past been major providers of the energy industry’s workforce.

Unions with utility companies have provided a particularly large number of workers. However, Schweitzer said 5,000 independent contractors are currently responsible for most of Ohio’s pipeline construction versus only about 300 utility companies.

The workforce shortage has led some contractors to take on workers who have little training, which compounds the shortage of students that technical colleges are seeing, said Schweitzer.

Technical colleges like Stark State have worked with industry partners to develop hands-on training for students that aligns with the industry’s needs.

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Schweitzer said Stark State’s oil and gas program is designed to teach a core set of broadly applicable industrial skills that include safety; general labor and power equipment operation; skilled trades, such as pipefitting, welding, and HVAC work; instrumentation and electronics; qualifications for pipeline utility operation; work with pumps and mechanical drive components; hydraulics and pneumatics; and predictive maintenance.

The college’s ShaleNET model includes a one-year certificate program as well as a two-year associate of applied science degree that Schweitzer said results in graduates who have been screened and are prepared with hands-on experience and peer management experience for job realities. Graduates can be promoted in a shorter time and are therefore easier for a company to keep on its workforce, an element that attracts companies like Chesapeake Energy, which Schweitzer said sends employees through the program’s courses.

In 2016 Stark State implemented a social media campaign to advertise tuition costs of less than $500 per student for high school students who had a 3.0 grade point average and declared a college major in oil and gas or environmental studies. The campaign did not attract a single recruit, said Schweitzer.

The ShaleNET program continues to offer several scholarships, including funds from industry partners Marathon and Chevron, to help high school graduates and older adults pay for tuition whether they become full- or part-time students. One scholarship from Marathon is especially targeted for minorities and women, a group that Schweitzer agreed is an untapped resource of workers.

“ShaleNET maxed at 90. We started at about 100,” Schweitzer said, adding that the program had fewer than 60 students by January of this year.

Reasons for the shortage

Secondary-school STEM initiatives could, ironically, be failing technical colleges. Schweitzer said STEM education tends to steer more students towards wanting advanced degrees, adding to the effects of the last decade’s emphasis on the four-year college degree.

The result is students who would rather become engineers or scientists than the technicians who help them.

Getting the message out to prospective students about the financial viability of jobs they can access with a two-year degree from the ShaleNET program has been another challenge, said Schweitzer.

To date, 100 percent of the ShaleNET program’s graduates have found employment in the oil and gas industry, and the jobs they have filled pay high wages. But Schweitzer said high school students still don’t realize how well they could do with an associate’s degree.

“Twenty dollars an hour is an average of what our students will get. They’re good jobs. And I just don’t think that message is getting out,” he stated.

Jean Barbato, the program’s student case manager, noted that it’s also difficult to convince parents that their kids can find good jobs after graduating from the program.

Schweitzer admitted that adults who have been laid off from other jobs and are seeking a career transition represent an increasing source of students for the shale program.

However, program coordinators are focusing their efforts on attracting more high school students, rather than adults, because adults often come from challenging backgrounds that raise concerns among employers. Although the college’s program offers these adult students essential hands-on training for the shale industry, companies are hesitant to hire them.

“Here’s where I would implore the industry. It’s very difficult...to find a job for someone who has a DUI or drug offense,” said Schweitzer. “Given that we have an increase in those people who come to us...it’s very difficult to find those people a job. It’s hard to find them scholarships. They have no options,” he added.

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