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Colleges Expand Offerings amid Natural Gas Boom

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.

ZANESVILLE, Ohio (AP) β€” 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 β€” 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 sturdy 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 3-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 change in these opportunities, a cornucopia of community colleges and local workforce training programs across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, even the southern tier of New York," 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 workforce with these skills that are going to be in need for the next 50 years, or even more."

Training shale workers is not only on the minds of energy interests in the Northeast; newly available resources in Colorado, Oklahoma, Wyoming and Texas have also been met with new educational offerings. Those include the Colorado Energy Research Institute's outreach efforts with a dozen community and technical colleges, and the professional land management certificate program started just last month by the University of Texas at Austin. The field's promised job growth is being documented.

New federal data released in September showed Washington County, Pa. β€” one of the nation's most active shale gas-producing areas and home to the first Marcellus well β€” saw the third-highest percent increase in employment in the nation. A July study conducted by Penn State University estimated that the industry supported 44,000 jobs statewide last year. Industry estimates show the Marcellus boom could continue robust employment for as long as 50 years.

A recent study by the Ohio Oil and Gas Association predicted that extracting natural gas from the Utica Shale, which deeply underlies the Marcellus, would create or support more than 200,000 Ohio jobs over the next four years.

Penn College of Technology, a member of ShaleNET, is offering classes in hot new areas of electronics, diesel technology or state-of-the-art welding, said Jeff Lorson, director of the college's shale-related jobs center.

"We're fortunate that in a lot of these cases these programs are full and with waiting lists," Lorson said. "For the most part, we've got really good opportunities for people in the credit programs. We've got good enrollment, I'll say that."

The opportunities range from two-week training courses like the one May took β€” emphasizing rig operations, gas detection and site safety β€” to master's and doctoral programs for scientists and engineers.

Professor Samuel Ameri, who chairs West Virginia University's historic Petroleum and Natural Gas Engineering Department, said enrollments there have surged amid the rush, more than tripling from 74 students in 2004-05 to 242 students this year. Salaries are among the highest among engineering disciplines, he said β€” where medians range from $70,000 in the northern mountain states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming to $106,000 in parts of Texas.

"The growth has been such that we are actively in search of two professors," Ameri said recently. "We are drawing students from every corner of the world."

Retrain America is developing training and re-training programs, some tuition-free, for qualified veterans, low-income, unemployed and dislocated workers. Other students can get loans. CEO Pete Bellavia said the company got its start in Pennsylvania last year, saw its first graduation in Ohio on Oct. 7, and will stretch to north Texas in November and Michigan after that. About 86 percent of the Ohio graduates had jobs as of last week.

"Our vision would be allowing individuals not have to be burdened with debt during this degree or take four years out of their life to get it," he said.

History suggests that such booms ultimately make the rich richer and leave the working class about as it was. A 2008 academic analysis of Census data for the few years after the California Gold Rush began in 1848 found "economic outcomes were generally small or even zero for miners but were positive and large for non-miners." The findings, by Carnegie Mellon University economist Karen Clay and CGI Federal consultant Randall Jones, appeared in the Journal of Economic History.

Chuck Wyrostock, outreach organizer for the Sierra Club of West Virginia's natural gas campaign, said the economic benefits of the shale boom may be similarly short-lived.

"There is some danger in young people getting trained in the area, when maybe five or ten years from now other factors will keep them from taking advantage of it any further," he said. He said jobs in alternative energy may overtake the shale gas as America is weaned off fossil fuels.

The Penn State study anticipated shale-related jobs would be available for 30 to 50 years, but that many workers would have to migrate over time, following the drilling rigs as they move from place to place. Many of the early jobs in Pennsylvania have been landed by out-of-state professionals, especially from energy-rich Texas, and that has concerned labor groups.

For now, May is basking in the boom times. He's still floored that he got the opportunity right at home to catch such a wave.

"It blew my mind, really. I was like β€” what? It's coming here?" May said. "It's kind of unheard of, really."