Careers in gas industry get boost
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In response to the booming natural gas industry and stagnant high unemployment, Westmoreland County Community College will create speciality gas technology programs that officials say will prepare students for careers in one of area's fastest-growing trades.
The program was made possible by a $785,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Labor.
Butler County Community College, which also will launch a certificate program next year, was awarded $700,000.
The state's 14 community colleges are receiving grants totaling $20 million.
The 14 colleges together identified health care information technology, advanced manufacturing and energy as three major growth industries. Most will use the grant money to focus on some aspect of energy, said Doug Jensen, WCCC's dean of workforce development.
"We're sitting overtop of one of the largest national fossil fuel deposits," Mr. Jensen said, speaking of the Marcellus Shale. Knowing the direction the industry is moving, "the college is starting preparing to be able to respond to that."
WCCC's certificate program will start as an overview of the gas industry, including basic procedures and safety issues. The 18- to 21-credit-hour program also will teach skills about the drilling and expiration processes and help students learn what employers in the gas industry want. Mr. Jensen said WCCC talks directly with employers to outline those key skills.
BCCC'S program will expand on its existing safety and hazardous waste operations training to concentrate on shale safety, said Francie Spigelmyer, vice president for academic affairs. A potential partnership with WCCC to develop a drilling roustabout program is still in talks.
Roustabouts perform various tasks from helping to repair and set up equipment to moving rigs from site to site.
WCCC officials hope to begin offering a certificate on the main Youngwood campus in late spring or early summer 2012, Mr. Jensen said.
BCCC's program likely will begin that fall, Ms. Spigelmyer said.
In time, both could blossom into associate degree programs, officials said.
Concentrating on another form of energy, Beaver County Community College will use its $470,000 share of the grant to create a nuclear engineering technology associate degree program, partnering with FirstEnergy, which operates a nuclear power plant in Shippingport, and with Lakeland Community College in Kirtland, Ohio.
FirstEnergy currently hires Lakeland graduates since no schools in this state offer the necessary training, said Karen Deichert, associate vice president for workforce development at Beaver County Community College.
"FirstEnergy in Pennsylvania can start hiring people from Pennsylvania," Ms. Deichert said. "There are people [here] who need jobs."
The unemployment rate in Westmoreland and Beaver counties is a little more than 8 percent and is just over 7 percent in Butler County. WCCC offers classes in nearby Fayette County, where unemployment figures are among the highest in the state, at about 9 percent.
In Allegheny County, where unemployment is above 7.5 percent, Community College of Allegheny County is using its grant to focus on advanced manufacturing programs.
The goal of these kinds of programs is to create "stackable credentials," meaning students can come back at any point to further their education, build on existing credits and avoid what Mr. Jensen called a "terminal education experience."
"When we target the population that have lost their jobs what we're hoping is that they'll come back for training," said Ms. Spigelmyer of BCCC. "I think people are rethinking their lives, really, and what they want to do."
In July 2010, WCCC was awarded a $5 million ShaleNET grant from the Department of Labor to work with emerging companies to train a workforce for Marcellus Shale drilling. Mr. Jensen said his team meets with 30 companies quarterly to talk about hiring needs, skill sets and the future of the industry.
WCCC already focuses part of its existing roustabout program on National Guard personnel. Mr. Jensen said more veterans could benefit from training in the gas and energy sector as many already are familiar with difficult working conditions, chain of command, safety and leadership skills.
First Published November 3, 2011 4:59 am