Colleges expand offerings amid natural-gas boom

Associated Press


Shuttered businesses and boarded-up houses dot the streets of historic Zanesville, the struggling river city where Cory May is starting a life with his young wife.

Until recently, job prospects in his native eastern Ohio were grim — even for a hard-working Marine reservist willing to work hard or relocate. May’s mother works as a school janitor in Cambridge, his nearby hometown. His machinist dad is among the county’s 11 percent unemployed. Most of his better situated friends are in the military or work at one of the area’s remaining factories.

“It’s either that or working minimum wage for the rest of your life, and let’s be honest, who really wants to do that?” said May, a 23-year-old who’s done a tour each in Iraq and Afghanistan since he turned 18.

The natural-gas industry has changed his prospects.

Vast stores of natural gas in the Marcellus and Utica shales running under Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and West Virginia have set off a rush to grab leases and secure permits to drill using the extraction technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

May snapped up the opportunity through his local community college, Zane State, to take a two-week, 80-hour shale exploration certification course developed by the private company Retrain America. When he graduated, he’d interviewed for three jobs and taken a position cementing wells for Halliburton that will pay $60,000 to $70,000 a year.

Zane State is among dozens of public colleges and universities across the northeastern shale states that are moving to add new staff, academic majors or job-training courses in fields related to natural gas.

Through a three-year, $4.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor, for example, five communities colleges in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York formed a coalition called ShaleNET. It’s focused on recruiting, training and placing people in high-priority natural-gas occupations.

“There’s really been a sea of change in these opportunities,” said Travis Windle, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, representing energy and exploration companies. “As natural gas continues to expand, so do the needs for a local work force with these skills that are going to be in need for the next 50 years, or even more.”

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