The growing natural gas drilling industry in Ohio and neighboring states means drilling companies need more trained workers.
Thanks to a $5 million federal grant, five Midwest-colleges are offering Marcellus shale drilling courses.
The program is called ShaleNet, and the only Ohio college participating so far is Eastern Gateway Community College, in Steubenville.
Eastern Gateway Community College’s 300-seat auditorium was overflowing during a recent info session, the first of two for the day.
The bulk of the audience was male, with speckled gray hair, heavy work boots, maybe a high school degree, and no job.
Most of these guys worked in construction, or in the steel mills. Some are veterans.
They are the ideal labor pool for a job that requires 12-hour shifts in all types of weather during 2-week stays on the job site.
Tim Goddard of Toronto, Ohio just lost his job doing outside maintenance for a construction company.
“That wasn’t even a career, that was really just a job,” Goddard says. “I want a career, and that’s what I need. I have a family, a growing family and staying in this area just isn’t viable anymore so if there’s a career that I can have in this area and keep my family here where the rest of my family is at, that’s what I want.”
Goddard is convinced shale drilling is the next big thing for the area, but not everyone shares his optimism.
“It sounds good. They all sound good when you first go,” says Dan Newman, of Hancock, West Virginia.
He is a little worried about how much this program is going to cost.
The classes are free, at least for now, thanks to the federal grant. But getting into the program is not. Applicants have to pay about $150 for physicals, drug screenings and background checks.
Newman says that is a lot of money in an area where unemployment is incredibly widespread.
“Some of these people don’t have $150 dollars to pull out of their pocket and go and take all this stuff and have it done.”
Other than that, Newman says, it sounds great, and he is on board.
In fact, most of the hundreds here say they are going to apply for the program. Safety classes have already started, and the first three-week course kicks off in March with just 17 openings.
The program is intensive. Classes run from nine to five.They include first aid training, learning how to operate a forklift in rough terrain, operating heavy equipment, working on an aerial construction platform and controlling spills. Students will visit an oil rig and see the work first hand.
Tracee Joltes coordinates the ShaleNet program at Eastern Gateway Community College.
She says those who complete the training stand a pretty good chance of landing a job, because they will have all the safety, environmental and technical training they need, plus they will be aware of the tough job conditions that come with working on an oil rig.
Joltes says, “these people will kind of be at the head of the line when it comes to being interviewed by companies like Chesapeake and Hess and other companies.”
Westmoreland Community College in Pennsylvania piloted the training program, and boasts an 82 percent job placement rate among its 52 alumni.
But not everyone is convinced these jobs are going to last until retirement.
Ohio State University economics professor Mark Partridge says, “we have to be realistic about these energy boms and busts.”
He points to the curriculum’s heavy emphasis on roustabout training. Roustabouts set up the oilrigs, maintain them, and move them to new sites.
The fact that there is such a high demand for roustabouts is what alarms Partridge.
“Once the exploratory phase and this initial construction phase here in Ohio passes, then they’re going to have to pick up and follow the boom and they’re going to have to compete with workers from around the world for this.”
Industry professionals say hundreds of thousands of jobs are coming to eastern Ohio.. Partridge says that’s more likely to be in the tens of thousands, and even then he says the average energy boom cycle lasts just 5 to 7 years.
Joltes is undeterred by the skeptics; ”if you pay attention to the number of trucks running right now, even just the pickup trucks, big F150’s, water trucks, environmental companies. If you’re half aware, you’ve got to see there’s a huge change, and it’s just the beginning.”
She acknowledges the industry will probably change over time. But until then, she says shale drilling offers good jobs to people who really need them, and this training should help them land those jobs.