Casey Junkins | January 15, 2018 | The Intelligencer. Wheeling News-Register
West Virginia Northern Community College petroleum technology instructor Curt Hippensteel demonstrates a plunger lift, which is commonly found at natural gas wells that have already been drilled. Photo by Casey Junkins
WHEELING –As the Upper Ohio Valley waits to learn whether a $6 billion Belmont County ethane cracker will bring hundreds of permanent jobs, officials at West Virginia Northern College are training students to work in a wide range of petroleum technology careers.
According to WorkForce West Virginia and the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, jobless rates throughout most of the area have declined since summer. With more natural gas rigs already running, the potential for the PTT Global Chemical ethane cracker, and the plans for China Energy to build $83.7 billion worth of natural gas projects in West Virginia, the opportunities for careers in the industry seem destined to grow.
“If someone likes to be outside and doesn’t mind working hard, it is a great career for them,” college Petroleum Technology instructor Curt Hippensteel said. “Although it varies by company and position, someone can start out making as much as $60,000 per year right out of the program. And eventually, they could make a lot more than that.”
Hippensteel said 15 students have obtained associate’s degrees in the petroleum technology program since 2015. He said 13 of these students have gone to straight to work for firms such as Southwestern Energy Co., Williams Energy, Stingray Energy and others. Of the two who did not enter the field, one got a job with the the FBI, while the other works for Covestro.
Meanwhile, college President Vicki Riley said the college is preparing to offer additional coursework that would specifically serve those who could obtain one of the hundreds of full-time jobs offered at the Dilles Bottom ethane cracker.
“We are just waiting for the confirmation,” she said. “We can add these classes, but it only makes sense if we know for sure that it is coming.”
Hippensteel disputes the notion that the industry does not want to hire locally.
“If a company is going to be around for a while, they want to have people who want to be here. That is a plus for them,” he said.
Hippensteel said there are now 16 students enrolled in the program, though he said the college could easily accommodate 30. The spring semester starts next week, but Hippensteel said most students begin the petroleum technology program in the fall. He said graduates receive training in drilling, fracking and production. They also take a class in midstream, which prepares them for careers at processing plants and compressor stations operated by companies such as Williams, Blue Racer Midstream and MarkWest Energy.
Hippensteel actually began teaching similar coursework in Arkansas several years ago. He said there are plenty of misconceptions with the program.
“A lot of people, when they hear ‘petroleum technology,’ they think that just means they’re going to end up being a roughneck out on a rig site. In fact, very few of the people who would come out of this program would end up doing that. Most of the people who do that, it’s because that’s what they want to do,” he said.
Hippensteel said many of his students come straight from high school, but others are simply looking for new opportunities. He counts former coal miners and factory workers among those who have completed the program.
“The resources are here, which means the job opportunities are here,” he added. “They just need the right training.”