By Rossilynne Skena,
Valley News Dispatch
Kurtis Fish is only 20 years old and he’s already making $80,000 per year.
Same goes for his 24-year-old brother, Ronald Severin.
The brothers, who completed a Marcellus shale training gas well drilling program at Westmoreland County Community College in September, work as chainhands on a Marcellus rig in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
The Las Vegas natives were laid off from their sheet metal jobs in Nevada when they heard about WCCC’s roustabout training program.
“We’re both young guys,” Fish said. “There wasn’t very many opportunities in Vegas for us. We really didn’t like staying on unemployment. We didn’t want to waste our time.”
So they ventured to Pennsylvania and graduated at the top of the class.
Within the next three years, thousands of new Marcellus shale jobs are expected to join the region’s work force.
That means Fish and Severin’s story will likely begin to echo.
And it gives local colleges a lot of work to do to prepare Western Pennsylvania’s workers. Some are creating new programs or modifying current ones to meet the demands of expected jobs.
A study last spring conducted by Pennsylvania College of Technology, an offshoot of Penn State University, looked at expected drill and rig activity in Westmoreland, Beaver, Washington, Green and Fayette counties. Other studies have looked at central and northern Pennsylvania.
It analyzed the type and number of Marcellus occupations needed between 2010 and 2014.
In 2014, there will likely be nearly 10,900 Marcellus jobs in that five-county region, the study found.
“There’s a lot of things that impact how fast this goes, but the opportunity and the amount of gas that’s coming up in the high performing wells … it’s jobs for several generations,” said Tracy Brundage, Penn College’s managing director for work force development and continuing education.
There are three main types of jobs needed to bring a Marcellus well into use: predrilling, drilling and production, she said.
So, how do you get one of those jobs?
Many companies offer specific training, Brundage said, but they also want people who bring specific skills. Those things can be learned at community college programs, two-year college programs and four-year college programs.
Williamsport-based Penn College offers training in safety, heavy equipment, welding, commercial driver’s license, electronics, fork-lift operation, instrument and programs, natural gas measurement, safety, supervisory control and data acquisition.
The college also offers roustabout training, a common program among local community colleges, that prepares workers for entry-level laborer jobs.
A two-year or four-year degree is necessary for more technical jobs, like engineering and surveying, applied science, surveying technology, construction management, electronics and computer engineering technology, welding and fabrication technology, CAD technology and heavy construction.
Penn College and WCCC are two hubs for Marcellus ShaleNET, a $4.9 million community-based job training grant from the U.S. Department of Labor.
Community College of Allegheny County also offers training, and Butler County Community College is readying training programs for this summer.
In years past, most Marcellus well workers were from out of state, but that’s changed within the past year, Brundage said.
“A lot of companies that we’re meeting with now are saying most of the workers are Pennsylvania residents,” she said.
But, she pointed out, some of those could be “transplants” to the state, like Fish and Severin.
The jobs are lucrative, but they’re not easy money.
“I know it’s significantly better than the average wages for other industries,” Brundage said. “The opportunity is there, particularly if people are interested in a job where they can earn good money.
“But they have to work hard. The hours are long, the schedules are different than in a typical industry. … It’s a different type of work mentality than a lot of traditional jobs that we’re used to.”
Roustabout work, in particular, is tough.
“It is very, very physically demanding work — outside in all kinds of conditions, getting the well sites set up and getting it ready to produce,” CCAC spokesmanDavid Hoovler said. “It’s definitely not an easy job, not for the faint of heart.”
The majority of people applying for roustabout jobs are young, local residents, Hoovler said. Roustabout base pay typically is about $28,000, but can be considerably more.
“We’re not getting people coming from a great distance away,” he said. “I think the majority have been from Allegheny County and directly in this region.”
WCCC has run several roustabout training programs with classes on average of 15 students, said Byron Kohut, director of Marcellus ShaleNET’s western hub at WCCC.
Area companies partner with the school, providing rig tours and explaining operations. That means the company will present their work to the class and take the students to a rig site for a presentation.
On the last day of class, the company gets first pick of the students.
No money changes hands, he said, between the school and the drilling companies.
The graduation rate is close to 100 percent, and the job placement rate is 60 percent.
“We don’t guarantee employment, but we do provide assistance,” Kohut said. “This industry is going to do nothing but help the region.”
Some roustabouts work two weeks on, two weeks off, while other companies have regular day shifts.
Average hourly starting pay is $18 to $25. Between $50,000 and $100,000 is common for a full-time roustabout, Kohut said.
Classes at WCCC have had both 20-year-olds and 50-year-olds, and those students have been placed locally.
Range Resources, one of the area’s largest local drilling companies, works as a sort-of general contractor, relying upon subcontractor-type companies for the actual drilling. Those service companies are hiring locally, spokesman Mike Mackin said.
Of its workers, 95 percent are local, Mackin said.
“That percentage of local workers is just getting higher and higher,” he said.
Range Resources is the company that completed the well near Pittsburgh Mills mall in Frazer — the first Marcellus shale well to be drilled in Allegheny County. The majority of its activity is in Washington County.
Drilling one well can require up to 400 people working in 100 different jobs, according to Mackin.
At first, Mackin said, out-of-towners were working in Western Pennsylvania, but that has changed as it’s more cost-efficient for companies to hire local workers and as colleges begin implementing training programs.
The industrywide average salary for those working in the Marcellus shale industry is $60,000.
Halliburton, another service company that contracts with oil and natural gas companies, conducts company-specific training for safety, along with other on-the-job training, said Shawna Melton, human resources supervisor for the company’s Northeast district.
Field operator positions require a high school degree, while field engineers need a college degree, she said.
Halliburton recruits throughout the state and provides training grants through Penn College, she said.
WORK FOR LOCAL SCHOOLS
Both WCCC and CCAC offer roustabout programs.
In addition to its three- to four-week, noncredit roustabout training, WCCC teaches an associate program in welding. It expects to provide more programming in the future.
“Our number one priority is jobs, training falls second, so what we’re doing is developing a system that will identify talented individuals,” said Byron Kohut, director of Marcellus ShaleNET’s western hub at WCCC.
The college will partner with Career Link in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio to identify jobs.
Roustabout programs have begun, he said, and the curriculum for the other five positions are still in the works.
CCAC officials talked to Marcellus drilling companies, organizations and government agencies, looking ahead at what jobs would be available.
“We discovered that actually a number of our existing programs, some with some minor changes and some as they currently existed, already aligned with projected needs within the industry,” CCAC’s Hoovler said.
Some examples are the college’s welding program, which now includes a special type of pipe welding used in the natural gas industry, and its first-responder course that now includes training for fires and accidents at wells.
CCAC also has a certification program in bio-remediation and courses in the two-year bio-technology program focusing on water used in the drilling process.
The college’s roustabout program, made up of 10 students, began last week. Hoovler said the college hasn’t decided if it will offer future roustabout programs.
“We are always looking at our course offerings to see when there are changes in the work force (and) how we can develop a program to fit that need,” Hoovler said.
Though BCCC doesn’t offer any specific Marcellus shale related programs yet, it does provide a number that apply to the industry, like emergency responder training and safety training, according to Stephen Catt, executive director of work force development at the college.
BCCC is also a part of the ShaleNET program, Catt said, working with WCCC and Penn College.
The college is trying to also look at sustainable jobs — what will be here after the rigs leave — in the filtration, distribution and environmental fields, he said.
BCCC plans to offer roustabout training this summer.
Some vocational and technical schools also offer Marcellus programs.
Lenape Tech in Manor Township teaches a certification course to be natural gas and oil facility technician. About a half-dozen adult learners enrolled in the program.
Steel Center Area Vocational Technical School in Jefferson Hills a program that provides general knowledge to a variety of jobs in the natural gas industry, like frac operator, welltender, line locator and rig hand.
To learn more about Marcellus ShaleNET, visit here.
Career not for timid, inattentive
On the day brothers Kurtis Fish and Ronald Severin completed their training to be laborers on a Marcellus shale gas drilling operation, there were suitors jumping to hire them.
Three companies interviewed the Latrobe brothers, and drilling company Nomac hired them right away.
It shipped them to Arkansas for an additional three-week training course. Then it was on to Oklahoma to work on a rig for a final company evaluation.
Now, they work near Scranton on shifts that are two weeks on/two weeks off.
The job pays well, but it’s not easy.
While stationed at the rig, Fish wakes up at 3 a.m. and boards a van at 4 a.m. to ride to the rig site. He works from 5:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., then gets back to the main camp by 7 for dinner, a shower and to get ready to do it all again come 3 a.m.
What’s more, it’s hazardous work.
“A lot of people look at the money first, but people have got to realize this is one of the top-paying, most dangerous jobs out there,” Fish said. “If you come to work not paying attention — I don’t mean to scare people — but you could die.”
His crew will take an extra 10 minutes to do a job safely rather than do it wrong.
On the job, the brothers clean the rig, take out trash, and “trip pipe” — changing drilling bits. It’s a promotion over their original job and it puts them one step closer to better jobs, Fish said.
He hopes to move up to the motorman job, a position that checks and works on various motors at drilling sites.
Though it is physical labor, Fish said he and his brother have always been active workers who keep in shape.
“If you don’t mind getting dirty, working in the rain, wind, snow — it wouldn’t bother someone who wouldn’t mind doing that,” Fish said.
As for the future, Fish sees himself progressing in the oil fields.
“They’ve got a saying, ‘You chase the rig,'” Fish said. “So this rig I’m on could go to Wyoming … I can pick up and go with my rig and keep my position, or quit and try to find a rig in Pennsylvania that needs a hand.”
He’s open to going wherever the rigs go.
“It’s a job, and that’s how it works in the oil fields,” Fish said. “You chase the rigs.”
SIX HIGH-PRIORITY MARCELLUS OCCUPATIONS
• Derrick operators
• Rotary drill operators
• Service units operators
• Welding and brazing operators
• Truck drivers
Source: Westmoreland County Community College
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