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Gas drillers worry about shortage of qualified workers

The steady flow of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale will be matched by a steady flow of jobs it will create for several years to come.

But there is a question whether there will be enough qualified people to fill those jobs.

One way would be to encourage science, technology, engineering and mathematics, education – not only to high school students, but also to those in a vocational career center.

Tom Maheady of Borton-Lawson Engineering, Wilkes-Barre, co-chair of the Northeast Pennsylvania Manufacturers and Employers Association, said STEM education has to be offered to all high school students, not just those following the academic track of study.

“There is a lot of evidence that the United States has fallen behind in preparing students for science, engineering, technology and math careers,” Maheady said during a recent MAEA energy roundtable discussion. “There’s also lots of evidence that those careers are crucial to a strong national and local economy. Something should be done about that.”

Maheady quoted a USA Today article that described the current state of STEM education in the United States.

“Too often pigeonholed as the vehicle by which upper-middle-class students pursue Ph.D. programs at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), STEM is also the tool a first-generation vocational student from Fall River, Massachusetts, uses to get a $50,000-a-year advanced manufacturing job right out of high school,” Maheady read from the article.

Bill desRosiers external affairs coordinator Cabot Oil and Gas Co., said the presence of natural gas and its byproducts will help attract new industry to this area – and some old industry that had gone offshore.

“We have an opportunity to bring back most of the stuff we lost to other states and countries,” desRosiers said. “Pennsylvania has been forever known as a place for natural resources which provided great jobs, whether it was steel or coal. We lost that feeling over the last couple of decades. But we have it back because of natural gas, and wet liquids such as propane, butane and ethylene. These are feed stocks for so many other things, like plastics, petrochemicals, and pharmaceuticals.

“There’s no reason why we can’t capitalize on it as a state, and even here in Hazleton, Wilkes-Barre and Scranton, and develop it.”

To capitalize on that, desRosiers said STEM education is vitally important.

Several gas companies like Cabot, working in the Marcellus Shale field, are partnering with educational institutions to develop programs to train future gas well workers.

“Cabot has an ongoing education program to get students in high school excited about energy — not just oil and natural gas, but energy as a whole — and get them into programs like Lackawanna College,” desRosiers said. “It would get them immediately into the workforce. They would come out of school with a high-paying job that will be here for decades.”

Steve Voytek, assistant director of the School of Petroleum and Natural Gas at Lackawanna College in Scranton, said the school offers four two-year degrees aimed specifically at gas extraction.

DesRosiers said Cabot is going to be working, or has worked, with the Schuylkill Technology Center and vocational career centers in Hazleton, Columbia-Montour, Northumberland and Lancaster.

He said the schools produce “really great candidates to work in our industry – hard-working, hands-on, like to think outside the box,” desRosiers said.

Cabot challenges the students to participate in STEM programs during a one-day session.

“We tell students if you have perfect attendance, if you improve in your grades, if you are at the top of your class if you take STEM curriculum throughout the year and excel at it, Cabot will pay you hundreds of dollars in cash,” desRosiers said. “At the end of the school year, when kids see cash in their hands, they are jealous the other kids got it. The next year, we see the improvement in the participation in that program.”

The Marcellus Shale gas companies are also encouraging educational development on the post-high school level by working with the Lackawanna College program.

“STEM education opens up so many different opportunities,” desRosiers said. “A lot of the starting salaries we see in our industry are $60,000 to $90,000 a year. A lot of these people are coming out with two-year degrees.”

Cabot also helps students who cannot afford to go to school through the Education Improvement Tax Credit program.

“We make our dollars available to every curriculum available to any student at a career and technical center who has some sort of poverty issue,” desRosiers said. “Cabot’s dollars will go toward paying their tuition or scholarship to attend that program.

“We have seen some of our best success stories in nursing, culinary and cosmetology. We are opening up opportunities these students otherwise would not have, and they probably would not excel in a regular high school environment, and probably will not go to college.”

Another way Cabot and the other gas companies help career and technical schools is by donating equipment. Cabot no longer does pipeline work, so the company donated leftover pipeline equipment to the Susquehanna Career and Technology Center.

How much energy?

The United States is poised to become the world leader in energy, desRosiers said, thanks to natural gas.

“Twenty or 30 years ago, the United States thought it was running out of energy,” desRosiers said. “The U.S. made its infrastructure to take energy from other parts of the world.

“Today, we have a lot of energy. There are 32 developing energy shale deposits, possibilities for double that with technology and capital distribution. There are 3,600 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. A lot of formations have both oil and gas.”

Marcellus Shale is in parts of six states, but the majority is in Pennsylvania.

“Marcellus Shale has been producing and developing gas for the last 10 years,” he said. “There are 6,000 gas wells, and Cabot has 300. The production for the last half of 2014 was 2 trillion cubic feet. That’s 4 trillion a year from one deposit, and that could increase. We have an enormous amount of energy across this country that we can develop.”

In addition to Pennsylvania, those states are New York, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia.

“It’s 94,000 square miles,” desRosiers said of Marcellus Shale. “It provides 243,000 direct and indirect jobs Pennsylvania, with an average annual salary of $65,000 for indirect jobs and $90,000 for direct jobs. In comparison, the average salary in Pennsylvania is $40,000 to $45,000.”

The people who build and operate the wells have to have a specific skill set.

“They have to calibrate all of the equipment, so they have a strong background in electronics,” desRosiers said. “They need to understand metal, welding and plumbing, They also take care of the area from an environment standpoint. … Every time we drill 10 wells, we need another employee to go out there and manage those wells for the next 30 to 40 years.”

Each well requires the talent of 450 different careers, desRosiers said.

“You need geologists,” he said. “You need civil engineers for safety. You need someone to remove trees and do earth moving. …

“Each rig employes two crews of 10 each. You can work your way up to head drillers. Every well we drill gets steel and cement casings. Somebody has to design this. Somebody has to look at all of the geology and 3-D imaging data and put together into a scope and implement it into the ground.”

DesRosiers said each well costs $7 million to $10 million.

“This isn’t an operation where if you screw up on this one, we’ll just do another one. Chances are if you don’t get something right, you’re probably our of a job,” he said.

“If we don’t excite the young people of today, they are not going to go into those fields tomorrow.”

Other careers There are other career opportunities aside from natural gas extraction that the industry is creating, desRosiers said.

“They are retiring old coal-fired and natural gas plants with new natural gas plants,” desRosiers said. “All natural gas lines in the United States will have to be replaced within the next 15 to 20 years. They are taking folks off the street, sending them through a 15-day boot camp, and putting them out there to work these jobs. Our graduates can step right into these jobs.”

Other opportunities will be in transportation. While the conversion to natural gas-running vehicles is just beginning, desRosiers said it won’t take long to catch on.

“Natural gas burns much cleaner than diesel fuel or gasoline,” desRosiers said, making it a better fuel from not only an environmental standpoint but also from a vehicle maintenance standpoint. If the fuel burns cleaner, less vehicle maintenance and repair will be needed.

DesRosiers compared a natural gas diesel garbage truck to a gasoline truck.

“I know one hauler who bought one diesel truck and one CNG (compressed natural gas) truck,” desRosiers said. “It cost $200 a day for the diesel, and $200 a week for the natural gas. UPS and FedEx are converting, because they know exactly how far they go.”

Trash trucks and tractor-trailers are also converting. Ford is the only auto manufacturer to make a CNG hybrid and if the natural gas runs out, the gasoline side kicks in.

It costs between $8,000 and $10,000 to convert an existing vehicle, he said, a cost that will become cheaper once enough people order the CNG vehicles.


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