By Alan Neuhauser
After two decades changing diapers, nanny Shelly Alexander was ready for a change herself.
“I wanted a job I could use my brain for,” says Alexander, who lives in Spring Valley in northeast Pennsylvania. “I had a great job, but I had no retirement, I had no benefits. It was just time.”
She tried working for a local gym. She made meal plans for friends, flirting with the idea of becoming a dietitian. But at age 40, four years of college to get the degree she’d need for that job held little appeal. Plus, in the past decade, a far more lucrative opportunity had moved into the area: hydraulic fracturing.
Fracking and horizontal drilling have unleashed an energy extravaganza in the Midwest and mid-Atlantic. American and international energy companies are churning out billions of barrels of oil and gas and attracting thousands of workers eager for entry-level paychecks of $50,000 to $60,000. In fact, in boom states like North Dakota, demand for workers is outstripping supply, as jobs remain unfilled for lack of qualified workers.
“We need more women, more workers,” says Randy Pacheco, dean of the San Juan College School of Energy in New Mexico. “The energy companies want to hire them. Whether it’s Chevron or BP or Conoco, they’re looking for them. They’re just looking for responsible, hardworking people.”
Regional colleges in boom towns from Pennsylvania to New Mexico have launched one-year certificate and two-year associate programs to train workers – with students’ educations often underwritten by the very energy companies that hope to hire them.
“A lot of the companies are struggling to field a workforce,” says Rick Marquardt, executive director of Lackawanna College’s School of Petroleum and Natural Gas, which opened in Dimock, Pennsylvania, the heart of the country’s fracking boom. “We get calls for interviews from [energy] companies in Pittsburgh, Houston.”
The reason, he says: “When our students come out, they’re ready to work.”
That sounded just fine to Alexander, who heard about the program through a friend last year. Within months, she’d bought herself steel-toed boots, a pink hard hat, and begun driving 90 minutes, each way, to Lackawanna’s campus three times a week to earn an associate’s degree in Petroleum and Natural Gas Measurement, one of four programs offered by the School of Petroleum and Natural Gas.
“I’m going to do something men do, and I’m going to do it better,” she says. “That’s what I’ve done my whole life.”
Alexander is one of 18 women enrolled at the School of Petroleum and Natural Gas, and the only woman enrolled in her particular program. All told, women make up 14 percent of the 129 students at the school. About 12 percent of the student body are minorities, mostly Latinos and Southeast Asians.
For $12,800 in tuition a year, they’ll spend two years immersed in the theories and science of oil and gas drilling, gaining the skills they need to work at fracking and drilling sites as well tenders, compression engineers, mud trackers and more. The goal is to produce workers, not analysts: Just about every student lands a summer internship at a fracking or drill site, and the job placement rate upon graduation is about 90 percent.
“It’s all science: physics, math computers,” Marquedt says. “We fill that gap between all the vo-tech schools and the four-year programs. We’re not interested in teaching them how to derive an equation.”
What they are interested in, though, is attracting more women to the program.
Geared toward an industry where the dorms are known as man-camps, and where the signing bonuses or other perks can include new pickup trucks – where most of the jobs, in other words, are overwhelmingly held by men – it’s a daunting challenge. A March 2014 study commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group representing the oil and natural gas industry, found that women make up 19 percent of the workers in the oil and gas and petrochemical sectors. Women account for nearly half the country’s workforce overall.
On drilling rigs, production wells and fracking sites, that share sinks to about 15 percent, and the number is actually expected to keep falling.
Yet, says Lackawanna College president Mark Volk says, “This is a field that is open to women. We need to ensure they know there are opportunities for men and women.”
While the number of white-collar jobs for women in the industry is expected to rise through 2013, the study found, “The already-low shares of women in the semi-skilled and unskilled blue-collar occupational groups are projected to decline further,” according to the study, conducted by the consulting firm IHS Global.
For one, the chemicals used at fracking sites are hazardous to pregnant women, a 2013 report found, with the potential to cause congenital heart defects in their infants. The overwhelming number of men at the work sites and in the towns surrounding them raises the risk of on-the-job harassment and sexual assault. Police in the fracking boomtown of Willison, North Dakota, for example, have reported a marked rise in sexual assaults.
As far as the work itself, major oil and gas companies typically require their workers to have some amount of experience before they’re hired, industry insiders and school administrators say. That means most workers start at smaller, independent contractors, where back-breaking grunt work is often the order of the day, 12 hours at a time.
“With a contract company, there’s a lot of physical labor that’s required,” explains San Juan College’s Pacheco. “So it’s difficult for women to obtain that experience with the contractors and move on.”
As Irene Lewis Motts, communications director of Stark State’s Oil and Gas School in Ohio, explains, “They’re difficult jobs. Not that women can’t do it, but there’s certainly a lot of men that can’t do it, too.”
That has not deterred Sultana Holcomb, who, as a college senior studying petroleum engineering at Montana Tech, spent last summer both in offices and out in the field in an internship with Anadarko Petroleum Corporation in Houston.
“Being a woman in the oil and gas industry, you definitely stand out,” Holcomb says. “It’s not like you’re out there in the field in a dress and high heels, but you do get attention.”
But, she adds, “I enjoy it, because I know I’m doing something right. I’m part of this new generation force that’s tearing down the stereotypes.”
Women like Holcomb are, as she describes, “making way for more women to come into the industry.” And as the IHS study points out, there remains “significant potential for female blue collar employment.” The key to fulfilling it, it says, is training.
That’s where the schools come in. Like military service academies, oil and gas programs like the ones at Lackawanna and San Juan give students enough knowledge to jump a rank, skipping low-status grunt work or intensive training to go straight to better paying and less-labor-intensive jobs with Chevron, Cabot, Halliburton and other major companies at fracking and drill sites.
It’s one of the reasons why helping launch a school to exclusively train an industry workforce can be a savvy financial investment for oil and gas companies. Not only does Cabot’s $2.5 million endowment of Lackawanna, for example, make for good PR, but the job training is funded in part by student-paid tuition.
Schools can also function as de facto recruitment agencies, too, helping attract the female and minority workers that the companies say they’re seeking. Lackawanna, for example, launched a support, advisory and networking group for its female students and alumni.
“We’re bringing together women in the industry at different levels,” says school project coordinator Betty Seelendbrandt, who launched and advises the group.
The discussion, she says, focuses less on issues one might expect from male-dominated drill sites and company towns, like sexual harassment or the danger of assault, than on other concerns: “The trepidation I think for most women is very commonplace, and that of fear of math and science,” Seelendbrandt says.
Latha Ramchand, dean of the C. T. Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston, offers a similar view.
“There are biases built in from an early age: ‘I can’t do math, I can’t do engineering.’ We just need to get over that mindset,” she says. Oil and gas programs, particularly ones that recruit women, help accomplish that.
During a recent visit to a fracking site, “we did’t see too many women where they were fracking,” Ramchand says. But, she adds, “If we have these dialogues – why don’t we have more women in these professions – if we have women at the table, men at the table, female role models we might change that.”
Holcomb, the Montana Tech student, agrees. Both men and women, she says, need to “realize the world is changing, and realize more and more women are working in the engineering workforce.”
Women entering the industry, she adds, should “have fun with it, too. It’s exciting when you’re breaking ground, when you’re doing something new not too many females have experienced.”
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Article Source: Neuhauser, A. (2014). Energy’s latest target: women. US News & World Report. Retrieved from http://www.usnews.com/news/special-reports/energy-of-tomorrow/articles/2014/12/01/oil-and-gas-industrys-latest-target-women