Colleges expand offerings amid natural gas boom

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ZANESVILLE, Ohio — Job prospects in Cory May’s native eastern Ohio were grim — even for a hard-working Marine reservist willing to work hard or relocate.

“It’s either that or working minimum wage for the rest of your life, and let’s be honest, who really wants to do that?” said May, a 23-year-old who’s done tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The natural gas industry has changed his prospects.

Vast stores of natural gas in the Marcellus and Utica shales running under Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia have set off a rush to grab leases and secure permits to drill using the extraction technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

May took a two-week, 80-hour shale exploration certification course developed by the private company Retrain America at his local community college, Zane State. When he graduated, he’d interviewed for three jobs and taken a position cementing wells for Halliburton that will pay $60,000 to $70,000 a year.

Through a 3-year, $4.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor five communities colleges in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York formed ShaleNET, which recruits, trains and places people in natural gas occupations.

“As natural gas continues to expand, so do the needs for a local workforce with these skills that are going to be in need for the next 50 years, or even more,” said Travis Windle, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, representing energy and exploration companies.

Penn College of Technology, a member of ShaleNET, is offering classes in electronics, diesel technology or state-of-the-art welding, said Jeff Lorson, director of the college’s shale-related jobs center.

“We’re fortunate that in a lot of these cases these programs are full and with waiting lists,” Lorson said.

History suggests that such booms ultimately make the rich richer and leave the working class about as it was. A 2008 academic analysis of Census data after the 1848 California Gold Rush found “economic outcomes were generally small or even zero for miners but were positive and large for non-miners.”

Chuck Wyrostock, outreach organizer for the Sierra Club of West Virginia’s natural gas campaign, said the economic benefits of the shale boom may be similarly short-lived.
“There is some danger in young people getting trained in the area, when maybe five or ten years from now other factors will keep them from taking advantage of it any further,” he said.

The Penn State study anticipated shale-related jobs would be available for 30 to 50 years, but that many workers would have to migrate over time, following the drilling rigs as they move from place to place. Many of the early jobs in Pennsylvania have been landed by out-of-state professionals, especially from energy-rich Texas, and that has concerned labor groups.

Printed on Monday, October 17, 2011 as: Natural gas industry offers employment, degree opportunities