As most of the U.S. economy struggles to shake off the Great Recession, the natural gas industry has an unusual problem: It can barely train and hire workers fast enough.
In response, natural gas companies are partnering with two-year technical schools in Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, Ohio, Colorado and Texas. They are donating equipment and helping launch new programs to quickly train workers to fill these new jobs.
These efforts are farthest along in Pennsylvania, ground zero for the trend underway nationwide to tap vast stores of natural gas trapped in energy-rich underground rock formations. And the industry-school partnerships forged in Pennsylvania are now being replicated across 20 other states where shale gas production is spreading.
To understand the economic impact on the country, consider the effects so far on Pennsylvania: Between the fourth quarters of 2009 and 2012, jobs in energy exploration and extraction—from roustabouts to managers, highly trained inspectors to skilled engineers—increased 149 percent, rising from 12,188 to 30,369, according to the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board. The average salary for jobs in these "core" industries was $83,100, the board said—significantly above the national average.
How Pennsylvania is helping to fill half a million skilled jobs
The shale gas industry is a big part of what's driving the U.S. recovery. Unconventional gas activity supported more than one million jobs in 2010, according to IHS Global Insight. That's almost twice the level of employment in the U.S. airline industry. And the figure is projected to grow by 500,000—to nearly 1.5 million jobs—by 2015.
But filling these new jobs has created its own challenges. That's why the industry is investing in technical education and training programs. The fruits of this investment were on display at the Pennsylvania Technical Institute in early November, when its new $3.5 million Energy Technology Center officially opened. The center received about $1 million in equipment donations from gas-industry companies like Equipment & Controls Inc.
"We're doing everything we can to accelerate their program because we need people," company Vice President Jim Neville told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "We have not been able to serve our customers as well because we don't have the manpower."
Expanding Pennsylvania's model nationwide
Perhaps one of the greatest success stories among these industry-school alliances was the creation of ShaleNET, a natural gas job-training program launched in July 2010 at Westmoreland County Community College in Youngwood, Penn.
ShaleNET's list of private sector partners reads like a "who's who" of the energy industry: Chevron, Shell, Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, Chesapeake Energy, XTO, and Encana, among many other smaller firms.
The idea was to create an efficient system for placing workers in entry-level training programs for skilled, high-demand jobs as roustabouts, welder's helpers, commercially licensed drivers, flood hands and production technicians.
It has been a resounding success. As of June 30, ShaleNET had trained 5,468 workers and employed another 3,421. The original grant ended June 30 with the program having exceeded all benchmarks and goals. In October, Westmoreland County Community College received a national award from the National Council for Workforce Education for its leadership in developing the program.
"The level of career coaching and support we received through ShaleNET was incredible," said Dan DeAugustine, who worked 14 years as a carpenter before he discovered ShaleNET, trained and took what would be the first of several jobs in the oil-and-gas industry as a roustabout.
In September 2012, ShaleNET entered a second phase, expanding geographic reach to schools across Pennsylvania, Ohio and Texas and offer "stackable" credits that allow students to enter and exit the program at various points and ultimately earn a bachelor's degree.
"This is an unprecedented investment in our community college system," Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez said in September during a speech in Colorado. "This is about education, labor, business and community leaders coming together to meet the real-world challenges of a complex global economy."