By David Conti
Four years ago, Bryan Dickson and Matt Ockree were among the youngest engineers working on gas well pads in Western Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale fields.
“I was out in the frack van with Bryan a lot of days and a lot of nights, learning from the people with more experience,” said Ockree, 27, a Lower Burrell native, recalling the training he received in trailers where engineers control the hydraulic fracturing of wells.
Ockree interned with Range Resources Corp., which hired him before he graduated from Penn State University’s petroleum engineering program. He now oversees the Fort Worth-based company’s internship program.
Dickson, 29, a Washington County native, was promoted to Northeast division engineering manager after less than five years at well completion company FTS International. He supervises the latest generation of engineers.
They’re part of what the expanding oil and gas industry calls the big shift change. Drilling veterans in their 50s and 60s, who cut their teeth on an oil boom that ended before these two engineers were born, are nearing retirement.
Many industries face the dilemma of replacing large groups of workers who are preparing to retire, especially in Western Pennsylvania where baby boomers outnumber 25- to 45-year-olds by about 130,000, according to the Allegheny Conference on Community Development.
“It’s probably more acute in the energy industry,” said conference CEO Dennis Yablonsky.
Twenty years of bust in the drilling business before the shale revolution gave Generation X little reason to pursue petroleum engineering degrees or jobs, leaving a gap between the dwindling number of boomers and a big batch of twentysomethings with high-tech knowledge, industry leaders say.
“We’ve been working pretty hard over the past … five years, to get past the baby boomer experience level and to fill that gap before it arrives,” said Nigel Hearne, president of Chevron Appalachia.
San Ramon, Calif.-based Chevron, Pennsylvania’s 10th-biggest gas producer, announced last month that it would spend $20 million on programs to teach school children and train college students in Appalachia to eventually fill the industry’s high-demand jobs.
A third of the 115,000 oil and gas extraction workers nationwide are between 25 and 34, pulling the median age to 38.6, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s younger than any agricultural, mining, construction or manufacturing sector.
“There’s a pretty big gap in age between the senior management who are, like, 55 to 60, and us. A huge gap,” said Dickson, whose company has nearly 700 employees in Pennsylvania.
Bridging the gap
John Applegath remembers when a generation of World War II veterans ceded control of the industry to baby boomers. He recognized the latest shift a few years ago.
“We’re better prepared to handle it than in the past,” said Applegath, a 38-year veteran of the industry who leads Range Resources’ southern Marcellus division. “We’re embracing it. We’re doing a lot to get these younger folks up to speed.”
At its Cecil office, Range Resources, the state’s most prolific shale driller, holds meetings geared toward addressing generational differences between workers. More than half of the company’s 1,000 employees are younger than 45.
The older generation is more company-minded and expects to put in time before getting a say in big decisions, but “younger people, as soon as they feel comfortable, they’re looking for when (they) get a seat at the table,” Applegath said.
“I’m glad to see that kind of aggressiveness,” he said. “I like to say, ‘I’d rather use the rein than the spurs.’ ”
Companies are wise to embrace the new generation, said Josh Hickman, founder of Young Professionals in Energy Pittsburgh, whose monthly networking events are called Crew Changes.
“When you want to take that retirement, who’s going to watch over your pensions, your stock?” said Hickman, whose Canonsburg-based Hickman Geological Consulting contracts with energy companies and landowners.
Younger workers want to know they have room for advancement, he said. They need exposure, though, to experienced mentors and some old-fashioned networking skills, which his group helps facilitate.
The growth of the drilling industry allows for some instant gratification for new hires, young workers said.
“It was boots-on-the-ground right away. You’re right in the business fast,” said Carrie Schimizzi, 27, of Latrobe, a land agent for Range Resources, who joined the company once she graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a law degree and discovered the “dismal” job market for lawyers.
Amanda Lyle, 24, of Shaler is five years younger than Dickson, her boss at FTS, but she is training new engineers after less than two years on the job.
“My friends in chemicals and plastic industries aren’t moving that fast; they don’t have that potential,” she said.
Interns and mentors
To feed the pipeline of young workers needed to replace retirees, companies are focusing on internship programs and other partnerships with Pennsylvania schools, including Penn State, where the petroleum engineering program is graduating nearly 200 students per class.
“I was always told that I would have to leave Pittsburgh to find a really good job, but now I am here at Range and I could not ask for a more amazing job coming right out of college,” said operations engineer Wade Lipscomb, 22, a Stanton Heights native who interned with Range Resources while attending Penn State.
Range Resources brings in 12 interns a year and has hired nearly three-quarters of them, said spokesman Mark Windle.
Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., Pennsylvania’s second-largest shale gas producer, this year gave $2.5 million to Lackawanna College to endow the petroleum and natural gas program that the Susquehanna County school established five years ago. Cabot has not started to experience the generational shift, but it expects to.
The endowment “ensures there’s a quality college nearby to supply those workers we will need,” said Cabot spokesman George Stark.
Once hired, young workers get intense field work — new Range Resources engineers live on drilling rigs for 12 days at a time — and lots of time with experienced supervisors. At FTS, all engineers spend three to four months with mentors.
“We want them to know they have the backing of the full resources of the company,” FTS spokeswoman Pam Percival said.
That kind of attention could mean the difference for companies trying to attract or keep a generation of workers noted for wanting to know what’s in it for them, Hickman said.
“Some companies have the capacity to make changes and make those adjustments,” he said. “Others might realize it, but they’re unwilling or unable to make the cultural shift.”