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Education being tailored to impending job boom

February 21, 2012
Times Leader

By KIM LOCCISANO, For The Times Leader

"Help wanted."

It's a message not often seen posted prominently in store front after store front in communities across the Upper Ohio Valley for more than a generation.

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SCHOOLS?LIKE Belmont College are beginning to tailor certain education opportunities to meet the demands of the expected economic boom locally.

But that is changing quickly, though it will not be something seen and experienced by all who call the region home.

Until recently job openings in the region were virtually non-existent, and sharing them on the printed page took up far less contracted space than it did a decade ago.

Job fairs with local or even regional opportunities were virtually a thing of the past.

That trend is beginning to change.

Unemployment benefit seminars were far more likely to be seen on a kitchen calendar than were formal job interviews.

After all, why promote possible job opportunities where few if any existed and had little more than a prayer's hope of becoming something real enough to generate a tangible and regular paycheck.

One thing had become painfully clear in recent years to many local families: we could do little to help ourselves or the next generation find work enough - a paycheck healthy enough - on which to build a decent future.

The message was clear: that is until very recently when the key to the possibility of an unexpected positive economic path for Ohio Valley residents to follow would be found once again lurking beneath the surface of the land many families have called home for generations.

Emotional ties make it hard to leave these lands behind, and still harder still for others to comfortably change their way of thinking when it comes to appreciating what can literally be family fortunes being found in the grounds on which we have built lives, homes and our communities.

This surge of industrial and economic shifting sands represents what is likely to be the single biggest positive economic influence to be seen in this region in decades.

Not everyone is happy about these coming changes, about the increasingly visible drilling sites and even about the methods and many of the related points.

Not everyone will benefit directly.

These changes have been accompanying the re-development of the existing gas and oil industry resources in the region. Plans to extract highly valuable gas and oil reserves from grounds deep within the region lie at the heart of nearly every step of this multi-layered process.

Education is taking a special place in this process and is expected to do so for some time yet to come, according to Belmont College's Engineering Program Chair Chuck McGlumphy.

"We have a long history of working well with the coal industry," he offered noting the value of applicants being able to walk in the door for an interview knowing they have solid math skills that they have more than a grasp of the sciences and technologies considered essential tools for any energy related job.

Associate degree programs in the energy engineering and related fields are increasingly valuable, and the necessary courses available locally in recognition of the regional shifts in industry preparation requirements for applicants who get, and earn, that invitation to join a specific workforce, he offered.

The highly sought after applicant will be the person who heads to an interview prepared to offer the potential employer evidence of their math, physics, chemistry, geology and computer skills, he said.

A change is being seen in jobs being filled in the coal industry, in the construction fields, for individuals with industrial electrician training, and those with civil engineering degrees: can realistically look to their chosen fields for long-term employment opportunities.

If you have the math education but are a bit unsure of the details - or just want to brush up on it before heading to a job interview, local schools, such as Belmont College, have or are putting in place specially tailored math and science courses.

Getting an accurate assessment of individual student's real working math knowledge and skill set is vital to any overall effort designed to connect the person with the possibility of quality employment for the mid or long-term in these industries, he stressed.

"It used to be a person could look forward to getting hired for a job and then being trained while on the job. That is not the norm today.

Potential employers want someone to walk in their door already proficient in specific areas of math and able to immediately begin working with certain computers and their programs."

"It's going to be just that simple," offered McGlumphy. "Everything in these fields involves applying math, particularly Algebra II. Holding solid math skills is now, and will continue to be vital to a person's ability to be successful in the workplace, especially when you are referring to jobs in the energy fields."

The effort a person makes to get comfortable with math as a very important part of any work related skill has its immediate rewards when it comes to average starting salaries being accessed by a large number of the local college's recent graduating engineers, said the Belmont College faculty member.

In fact, while the number of jobs in the coal industry, for civil and industrial electrical engineers and the like has not necessarily been increasing substantially but the age of many workers has placed them at retirement age - leaving a post open and in need of filling - not of being absorbed.

"We have already seen the reality that fully three quarters of our industrial electrical engineering graduates are working at good jobs in their field," he said, also noting within just a few years time these graduates often find they have access to promotions into managerial positions and accompanying increases in wages and benefits.

"These are great jobs," offered McGlumphy, noting it is not unusual for starting salaries of between $50,000 and $60,000 to be in place for employees new to jobs in the coal industry and in other energy related fields.

Realistically, there is no immediately visible positive impact on the region's steel industry from the locally developing resources of the energy industry.

It remains largely an exception to this trend say experts in and close to the hard-hit industry that has long been a vital part of the region's economic foundation.

On a local level the economic and industrial boom which experts say is now just in its infancy in this region is expected to continue to generate increasing numbers of jobs and job openings for qualified applicants, and educators from high school through all types of college programs are striving to find and implement courses specifically tailored to the identified needs of these aspects of the energy industry, according to the Belmont College representative.

Students at Buckeye Local High School have begun to learn about opportunities for employment they may well expect to be available in the immediate future as they look forward to high school and college careers and graduations.

Experts in labor and industry say this will be a first for area graduates - the opportunity to prepare for and secure good long-term employment in a place no one expected to encourage them to live and work as adults: home.



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