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CTCs to begin training students for oil, gas work

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By CYNTHIA McCLOUD
For The State Journal

Training West Virginians to work in the highly specialized jobs of the oil and gas industry is fueling collaboration between energy companies and community colleges.

Pierpont Community and Technical College and West Virginia Northern Community College have enrolled their first students in associate and certificate programs in petroleum technology.

The West Virginia Council for Community and Technical College Education launched the Appalachian Petroleum Training Center at the Robert H. Mollohan Center at the I-79 Technology Park to facilitate the programs, thanks in part to a $250,000 grant from the Benedum Foundation.

Students at both schools will learn on indoor drilling simulators. The colleges will share an outdoor simulated drilling lab located in the Marion County Industrial Park in Fairmont on land donated by the Marion Regional Development Corp.

At Pierpont, 15 students are enrolled in the program.

"That's a good enrollment for the first year," said Paul Schreffler, vice president for workforce development at Pierpont CTC. "That's a functional class. We're real happy about that."

Karri Mulhern, director of economic and workforce development at WVNCC, said approximately 10 students, maybe as many as 20, will be enrolled in petroleum technology classes when they begin after Labor Day. The school was still finalizing registration.

"The curriculum is the same at both schools," Schreffler said. "The program is focused on field technician jobs. There's a great need for those."

The programs train people for 20 different career tracks working in three major areas: production, well services and drilling. 

These jobs pay $35,000 to $60,000.

"We're training people for a broad spectrum of petroleum jobs, not just in the Marcellus Shale, but that's the biggest gas play in the United States right now," said Ron Walsmith, Pierpont's petroleum technology program coordinator and director of the Appalachian Petroleum Training Center.

Hands-on well-site instruction and safety are big components of the training that prepares workers to enter the production stream at any point: from setting up a well site to extracting oil or gas, to running a compressor station and managing the delivery of gas to homes.

"It will be very real. We will have wells in the ground and different kinds of injection types of equipment and pumps," Schreffler said.

The lab will not be a producing well. Its depth will only be 1,200 feet.

"We can do the training with a shallower well that is actually functional," he said. "Students have to understand how to operate those pumps and how to deal with the various pieces of the process because it's very technical these days. If people aren't aware of where to put their hands or where not to, there's opportunity for injuries."

The industry needs a long-term workforce in West Virginia skilled specifically in the technology used to extract petroleum in Appalachia, which is geologically unlike the oil and gas fields of the West and South, Schreffler said. These industries are expected to be strong in the state for the next century.

Many West Virginians are already employed in the petroleum industry, he said.

"What every energy company wants is to hire people from the area where they're going to be working. They're typically happier employees," Walsmith said.

Energy companies, including Dominion Resources, Chesapeake Energy, CONSOL and Union Drilling, are supporting these training programs in a variety of ways.

Industry executives served on advisory committee reviewing course materials and curriculum. Companies have donated equipment and pipe for the hands-on labs.

"We've had excellent support from the state and donations from industry that we can't talk about yet," Walsmith said.

"I see a great future for graduates in our program," he said. "Our petroleum industry in this nation is rapidly expanding. It's projected by the U.S. Energy Information Administration that this country will be energy self-sufficient within the next 10-20 years. We're getting closer every year. In 2011, we exported more petroleum liquids than we imported for the first time since the 1950s."