Sunbury Daily Item: Pilot program fits bill; SUN Tech trains workers for gas industry

By Evamarie Socha

“A high school diploma and a real good work ethic are about what you need to get hired in an entry-level job up there”

NEW BERLIN — Dennis Hain believes in learning a trade, then being able to find a job in that trade. As director of SUN Area Technical Institute, he sees the school’s pilot program with Pennsylvania College of Technology as fitting the bill by preparing students to work in the natural gas industry.

That pilot program, called Penn College Now, is a natural gas technical education partnership, focusing on fields in demand for Marcellus Shale workers: welding, electronics, electrical work, diesel and computer networking.

“Whether you agree with the drilling and what it might do to the environment, there are still jobs issues, and the economy, and people out of work,” he said. “I can tell you I’ve never received as many phone calls from businesses asking for students. We don’t have enough to fill the positions.”

If working for a natural gas company is an ethical issue for some, for others it’s a means to a good paycheck and benefits that they wouldn’t have otherwise without leaving the state.

“A high school diploma and a real good work ethic are about what you need to get hired in an entry-level job up there,” said Tracy Brundage, assistant vice president of workforce and economic development at Penn College. She noted that a good driving record and clean background also are important.

Take it a step further with more education, and a student can make a solid career with a salary two or three times what he or she would make in another industry, plus good benefits.

To that end, the school created Penn College Now, a dual-enrollment program in which high school teachers train to teach Penn College courses. The students who take them earn college credits and then enroll at Penn College at a reduced tuition.

SUN Tech is one of two vocational schools in the state very involved with this program, Brundage said. As a result, students taking the courses could earn up to 15 credits before enrolling at the college.

Generally, 11th- and 12th-grade students are eligible to participate in the program. Limited classes are available to 10th-graders.

A three-year National Science Foundation grant for about $882,000 helps support the dual-enrollment program in technical fields that lead to associate degrees in areas employed for Marcellus Shale, Brundage said.

“In general, our job is really to connect secondary and post-secondary education together, especially in technical fields,” Brundage said. “We focus to make sure technical education at the high school level and Penn College have alignment.”

Penn College operates 14 majors in 20 vocational schools for this. Other occupations include computer-aided design, information technology, geology and forestry.

Jeannette Carter, director of the outreach for K-12 office at Penn College, said the NSF funding helps provide technician courses at up to 15 high schools and career and technical centers in 15 counties across the central and northern parts of Pennsylvania.

It also helps the school reach out to nontraditional people in the field, such as women.

Carter said the NSF grant let the school realign curriculum to some core competencies of the natural gas industry, as well as work with local career and technology centers to prepare workers’ transition from other industries.

Hain has observed this change firsthand. “What’s happening is our businesses here are starting to lose people going up there (Marcellus Shale) for higher wages,” he said. “A lot of our students are filling positions in this area as well as going up there.”

Brundage knows that well. “What happens is the best workers who want to work in the natural gas industry migrate out of other occupations and industries,” she said. That leaves job opportunities for people to fill the vacated slots.

“Often, the people with the most talent go work for the big fish, where they’ll make the most money, if that’s what motivates them,” she said.

One twist is that this helps supply workers to Pennsylvania’s manufacturing industry, which has a brewing skills gap, Hain said.

“The older people with skills are retiring, and there aren’t enough young people to replace them,” he said.

That’s a boost to the state that Brundage likes.

“Manufacturing is an awesome part of central Pennsylvania,” she said. “We have to make sure it stays healthy, because it produces significant benefits to communities. Both Marcellus Shale and manufacturing need a good supply of trained workers.”

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