The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

October 24, 2010

Each of 150 natural gas jobs require training

Most types of natural gas jobs require training

By Evamarie Socha
The Daily Item

— There will be jobs — that was one of the promises of the Marcellus Shale drilling project in northcentral Pennsylvania. The direct work force to drill one well calls for about 410 people working in 150 various positions, according to the Marcellus Shale Education & Training Center's Needs Assessment from June 2009.

In August, the unemployment rate was 7.2 percent in Bradford County — home of Towanda, which some consider to be ground zero for the gas drilling — according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

"I'm asked that all the time: Why do we still see so many Oklahoma and Texas and West Virginia license plates?" said Frank Thompson, deputy director of the Northern Tier Regional Planning and Development Commission in Towanda. The natural gas industry has been upstate now for about 18 months, and so much is changing so fast, from roads to business to the cost of living there.

But still, not many locals work on the drill sites. During one tour of a drilling rig, Thompson found no local residents working there. He did find two men working at the last rig he toured.

The fact is, "It's going to take a number of years before our local work force is integrated with the direct jobs," Thompson said. Indirect jobs — the office staff, equipment supply and other peripheral businesses that support the natural gas industry — are available and what most people there get these days.

"The job growth has been from the indirect jobs, local employers who have tweaked their business model to meet the needs of the gas industry," Thompson said. "It's the local trucking firms that have added more trucks to haul water. There are a lot of excavators who've added jobs. The companies that are fixing the roads — those are all local contractors who get that work, and so it's related to Marcellus Shale."

Bradford County's unemployment rate actually has improved over a year. In August 2009, it was almost 9 percent; that's a 1.7 percent drop, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Tioga County, also a Marcellus Shale drilling area, has 8.4 percent unemployment, an improvement from 9 percent the year before.

"There are 2,500 more employed people," Thompson said. "And for a county of about 60,000, it's just staggering. I was floored, and it had to happen three or four straight months before I believed that kind of thing could happen here."

Tioga County showed the third-highest job growth in state, percentage-wise, Thompson said. Bradford and Tioga are the top two counties in the Northern Tier for gas-well drilling right now.

Sharon Kaminsky attested to the growth. The administrator of the Central Bradford County Chamber of Commerce in downtown Towanda demonstrated a website, DirectChamber.com, which several gas companies — which she declined to identify — funded for $2,700. It directs people new to the area for any and all types of business needs, from contractors to hotels to financial services.

"Business is booming," Kaminsky said. "People are coming in and supporting the local businesses" and some are struggling to keep up. She noted that the local dry cleaner was looking to sell his store and retire, but now "He's going crazy trying to keep up with all this business," she said.

But the rush isn't reaching everyone.

"Many young people are still staying with mom and dad," Kaminsky said. "The jobs haven't increased in scale, and the economy his hitting them hard."

These young people are likely ideal for the direct jobs — the work on the rig sites that most thought they'd get when Marcellus Shale came to town. And for now, those are held by people from out of town, if not out of state.

"This type of gas drilling is an experience-based industry," Thompson said. Safety is a huge issue, and "Since none of our labor force has any experience in the industry with the direct jobs, the drilling and fracking and things on the well site, you can only add so many inexperienced people to a crew."

For example, a drill site runs four six-man crews at 12-hour shifts for two weeks.

"If you have only six people doing the drilling, how many inexperienced people can you have out there? So there is a capacity issue when it comes to adding new employees," Thompson said.

At just two years into the Marcellus Shale era in Towanda, the Northern Tier commission and education institutions also seized on an opportunity to educate and ready the work force so people can get these jobs that they're not ready or qualified for yet.

"We have a real diverse student body," said Larry Milliken, director of energy programs at Lackawanna College's Towanda center, which offers a program for an associate of science degree in natural gas technology. The focus is on equipment and procedures that workers in the field will need to know.

"The courses are specific to the people of Bradford County," Milliken said. "We did that on purpose, because once these wells are in, they don't move. You end up going where the work goes. If you are a well tender, the well never moves. It's there until it runs dry, which is projected to happen in about 15 years or more."

The two-year program runs about $22,000 and is designed around technical production. Gas companies do not pay for anyone's tuition.

"Not yet anyway," Milliken said.

Milliken's students range in age from 18 to 50, he said. Some are right out of high school and see a great opportunity in the gas industry. Others have some college under their belts, and still others have been out of the work force for a while for assorted reasons. There are 18 students in the first class who will graduate next spring, and 23 in the class that just started this fall.

The Lackawanna program is "focused on niches where we can contribute something the industry needs which others don't have or offer. ... The fact that we have a high retention rate is very encouraging," Milliken said. "I had an internship for every student in that first class with five companies. That is an excellent endorsement."

Gas companies contributed money and equipment to the program, and the students "seem really excited about it," Milliken said. "They can see after spending the summer in their internships that they know what the job does, know what it pays, and they feel this training will give them an edge in gaining employment."

This differs somewhat from the courses offered at Pennsylvania College of Technology's Center for Business and Workforce Development in Williamsport, under its Marcellus Shale Education and Training Center.

Among 11 classes offered there are down-hand welding, common in the gas industry; a commercial driver's license course specific to the gas and oil industry; Basic-SafeGulf/SafeLand Orientation, which teaches about safety issues specific to the industry; industrial forklift operation and certification; and electronic for "nonelectrical personnel," among others.

Penn College's courses vary in price. The driver's license course costs $4,850 for three weeks of all-day classes, while the safety training costs $200 for a one-day schooling.

The Northern Tier is working on whole career awareness campaign, offering "pre-employment" program to get potential employees ready to approach gas companies for work.

"When the (needs assessment) study came out in June 2009, we definitely saw the gap and figured out how to help the local work force get jobs with the industry," Thompson said.

Done in conjunction with Penn College, the "Fit 4 Natural Gas" program teaches people about the various jobs at a drill site: the roustabouts, or entry-level general labor, hold about 25 percent of the drill site jobs; the floor hands, who do well drilling and service the rigs, hold another large chunk. There also are the culture aspects to learn. Marcellus Shale drill-site workers spend two weeks at a time working 12-hour shifts before getting a few days off.

The classes hold 15 people and are free, funded under a career opportunity grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. The first class was in February.

Under this pilot project, students get a week of soft-skills training, everything from resume-writing to interviewing with this industry. Thompson said the group has met with gas company representatives about what they want in employees and teach accordingly. Students get rough-terrain forklift certification, the SafeLand basic safety course, certification in first aid and CPR, and a defensive driving class.

"We're trying to give some background on the industry, some safety certifications, and help people get in the door with this roustabout, general block of training for jobs where there is no training locally," Thompson said.

And that will be important for the whole "There will be jobs" mantra to work. For the needs assessment study, participating gas companies came up with a full-time job equivalency of 11.53 full time jobs for every rig. Rigs can drill multiple wells and move around during the years.

Based on the projections of wells to be drilled, the needs assessment came up with approximately 5,500 new jobs by 2011 or 2012 in Bradford, Sullivan, Susquehanna, Tioga and Wyoming counties. A full year's projection came up with 277 wells to be drilled in the five counties.

Thompson said that at the end of August, there were 433 wells drilled already in five counties. They account for more than 53 percent of all the wells drilled.

"Our ultimate goal is to get our citizens jobs, good sustaining jobs," Thompson said. "So if somebody goes through this class or any of the programs, my personal philosophy is that they get as much as is transferable to another job as they can. So even if they decide I don't want to go into the gas industry, they still (training), so maybe they can go to a different job, and they are more marketable for that."

— E-mail comments to esocha@dailyitem.com