Students prep for jobs in energy industry

Rapid growth in the oil and gas industry nationwide has spurred the need for more highly-trained employees for companies in the Greater Houston area. Energy giants like ExxonMobil and Southwestern Energy are forging partnerships in the Spring/Klein area with higher educational institutions and even local high schools to meet the demand.

In 2012, 43,000 new jobs were added to the oil and gas industry in Texas, according to the Greater Houston Partnership. But there has also been an exodus of retiring workers.

"There hasn't been a lot of succession planning done in the oil and gas industry, so we have this huge [skill] gap," said Christina Robinson Grochett, chief strategist for innovation and research at Lone Star College–University Park. "We're working to build that succession plan with them so they can hire employees we can develop as future leaders so we don't run into this situation again."

Filling a void

In the oil and gas industry, there has been a resurgence of retired employees who are being asked to come back to mentor students coming directly out of school, Grochett said.

"Industry is hiring [students] but they don't have the skills, so they need somebody who knows the job to train them," Grochett said.

To keep up with industry demand, LSC–University Park will open a 75,000-square-foot Energy and Manufacturing Institute on campus this fall to serve 1,400 students.

"There's a huge need right now for skilled workers, and the creation of the Energy and Manufacturing Institute was to fulfill that demand and put workers that have the right skills into the workforce immediately," she said.

Students can follow numerous pathways to the energy industry at the Lone Star College System, said Kelly Gernhart, dean of social science and advanced technology at LSC–CyFair.

"We have certification programs, which are great for someone changing careers or just starting out," Gernhart said. "Someone can earn a certificate in welding or machining that gives them a skill set to do an entry-level position. Then they can build on that and work toward an associate's degree while they are already employed."

Programs offered by the college system range from engineering technology to welding to petroleum data technology—a new program that will be offered this fall. The majority of programs give students hands-on opportunities in the classroom.

Preparing the workforce

In late March, LSC–University Park began offering an Oil and Gas Drilling/Floor-Hand program to prepare students to enter the workforce in eight weeks.

"We're having folks hired right out of class," program director James Ward said. "This is a workforce program designed to put people to work."

Ward said the program has about an 85 percent placement rate with starting salaries between $40,000 and $80,000 per year, depending on what job avenue its students pursue.

An oil and gas drilling floor-hand performs general duties of all types on an oil rig, which is becoming more common in the industry, said John Galiotos, executive director of the Energy and Manufacturing Institute.

"In the past you had specializations, but now you have to do more than that," he said. "You have to be an operator, and you have to be an instrument technician. The more skills you have, the better it is."

Lone Star College-North Harris began offering industrial diesel technology classes in the spring, said Kendall Lawrence, dean of career and applied technology. Lawrence said the college offers a variety of courses related to construction equipment that could be used on oil rigs.

The programs are so popular, Lawrence said, that the college is constantly adding new sections and struggles to provide enough instructors. He said the college also has problems keeping the students in the programs long enough to complete them because some students are getting hired after completing a few courses.

"[Companies] come to us and they train through our corporate college," Lawrence said. "They're training their own people that way. In doing that, they tell us they'll need X amount of your graduates in the next few years."

Working with industry

LSCS students have started their careers with several oil and gas companies in the Houston area, Gernhart said.

David Eglinton, upstream media relations manager for ExxonMobil Chemical Company, said the company has invested $1.5 million in its Community College Petrochemical Initiative, a training program at nine community colleges in the Texas Gulf Coast, including LSCS.

"ExxonMobil Chemical has been working on manufacturing workforce training initiatives for 10 years across the U.S. Gulf Coast area, and we are getting more than our fair share of test-qualified applications to fill positions," said Margaret Ross, communications and media coordinator for ExxonMobil. "The [initiative] we support is to recruit and train students for the jobs the chemical industry is expected to need due to the announced capacity expansions."

Ross said the program expects to reach 50,000 students and educators during the next five years.

ExxonMobil has also developed partnerships with students before they ever reach college through Spring and Klein ISDs. Spring ISD Communications Director Karen Garrison said the company has hosted leadership conferences the last two years, allowing students to learn communication, career and leadership skills to help them in the energy industry.

More than 100 Spring ISD students attended this year's event.

"That's a real world experience for our students and it helps them be better prepared for their careers," she said.

ExxonMobil also has offered internships and job shadowing to Spring students, Garrison said, with as many as six Westfield High School students currently working for the company. She said the program has a 30-year history and students are often asked to continue working there after graduation.

Sherri Lathrop, Klein ISD instructional science officer, said Klein schools and ExxonMobil employees participate in the Science Ambassador Program, .

"This program involves employees and retirees who go into schools to serve as tutors, judge science fairs and act as mentors and guest teachers," Lathrop said. "It also provides grants, through the ExxonMobil Foundation, for the schools where the employees volunteer."

Southwestern Energy—whose 580,000-square-foot campus could be completed by the end of this year in Spring—has begun preliminary negotiations with Spring ISD for an educational partnership, Communications Director Susan Richardson said.

"We are partnering with Spring High School on a few projects related to our new building," Richardson said. "We're really excited about being part of that community up here. We've already built some relationships with schools around here, and we're excited about joining that community."


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