Pittsburgh Technical Institute transforms itself with new energy curriculum

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On one side of Pittsburgh Technical Institute's new Energy Technology Center in North Fayette sits a rain garden. The other side is empty, making it the perfect spot for an oil and gas drilling rig, suggested PTI president Greg DeFeo.

Now that the two-year college is putting its stamp on oil and gas industry training, it seems like a natural fit to bring a rig on site, he said, though the school isn't seeking proposals just yet.

PTI has been in a state of reinvention for the past 15 years, adding piece by piece to a vision to transition from a two-year trade school to something that feels like a four-year college. In 2002, PTI was accredited as a college that can only provide associate degrees. The most recent addition is the $3.5 million energy center, which unites three programs under one roof: oil and gas electronics, HVAC, and welding.

"We had a 20-minute discussion about whether we could use a [blow] torch to cut the ribbon" during the opening ceremony set for Thursday, Mr. DeFeo said. It was decided they could not.

The heating, ventilation and air conditioning program, which used to be offered as evening classes off campus, has come in-house. Welding classes began mid-October. That program was designed with the oil and gas industry in mind, as there's an emphasis on pipe welding.

PTI's new oil and gas electronics program is a spinoff from its existing electronics curriculum and is all about measuring the fuel.

"That's the cash register," said Dave Becker, academic chair of the school of energy and electronics technology, standing between a gas meter and a liquid flow simulator last week. Liquids equipment is particularly suited for this region because the Marcellus Shale in southwestern Pennsylvania produces wet gas, rich with natural gas liquids.

The idea for an energy curriculum has been in the works for the past four years. Mr. DeFeo started planning for it at a time when enrollment was at a high, around 2,100 students, as the recession edged high school graduates and existing workers out of the labor market and into the education system.

For a trade school, the news was both good and bad. The influx brought revenue and exposure but the pressure was on, too. In less than two years, the college had to produce employable graduates. The oil and gas industry, with its seemingly insatiable thirst for technicians, was an obvious choice for new classes.

According to a survey of its members, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an oil and gas industry group, found that nearly 30 percent of new hires in the industry last year were equipment operators. Engineering and construction, and operations and maintenance are by far the most difficult-to-fill areas, the survey found, and they're also the fields where oil and gas companies planned to do the most hiring this year.

"Our customers, the gas developers, they're screaming for more technicians," said Jim Neville, vice president at Lawrence-based Equipment & Controls Inc., which donated equipment and helped design PTI's curriculum.

In 2000, PTI went from being an urban trade school in the center of Pittsburgh, where it had been founded in 1946, to a college on a hill, sprawling over 180 acres in North Fayette.

During the recession, when enrollment rose, the school built its first three residence halls. Now 850 students, out the school's 1,800 total, live in school housing, either in the dorms or in apartments off site. There's room, and plans, to build at least two more residence halls on the property.

PTI's vision was to differentiate itself from other trade schools by having a vibrant campus life -- a college feel that would prime those who want to move on to earn a four-year degree, although only about 10 percent of its graduates choose the option right away.

Behind the new energy center, construction is underway for a basketball court and two volleyball courts. In the field between the residence halls and the Energy Technology Center, a large student union center is in the master plan, but not in the immediate future.

The campus store has quintupled in offerings in the past five years, he said, pushing school-spirited merchandise as convincingly as any small liberal arts school. There's a drama club, intramural teams and a highly patronized humans-vs.-zombies battle, a sophisticated game of tag to determine the fate of mankind.

On Halloween, so many costumed students showed up for a party in PTI's main gallery hall, the floor shook below them. Mr. DeFeo showed up halfway through, dressed as Joe Dirt.

But this is a technical school and the focus is, first and foremost, on careers. So there's speed networking, mock interviews and a "new-to-you" professional dress sale where students can fetch a suit for as little as $2.

There are 26 different programs at PTI, some of which come with an associate in science degree and others with certificates. Tuition ranges between $15,000 and $45,000 depending on the program. Most graduates working in their field start at a salary in the mid-$20,000s.

The energy programs, as many others at PTI, were developed with the guidance of advisory boards, which bring industry needs to the table, review curricula and update instructors on what's new in the field.

"They also hire a lot of our graduates," Mr. DeFeo said.

Anya Litvak: alitvak@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455

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