Better collaboration between employers and workforce training programs is key to filling the expected job openings in the growing oil and natural gas industries, according to research from the RAND Corporation.
“It’s a shared investment on both ends,” said Robert Bozick, senior sociologist with RAND. “Employers benefit from having a strong local school system. Strong local school systems are stronger when they do a better job of preparing their students for the workforce.”
The survey included interviews with 67 industry employers and 87 heads of higher education departments in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio that offer certificates or degrees related to oil and natural gas jobs.
According to a 2016 study by the Washington D.C.-based American Petroleum Institute, the oil and natural gas industry will have 1.9 million job openings by 2035. With a slew of retirements and shortage of trained workers, there is the possibility that 34,000 jobs could go unfilled in the Pittsburgh region in the coming decades, according to RAND.
Bozick said this presents the region with an opportunity to refine its workforce development.
“This is actually an area that is relatively flush with post-secondary institutions,” Bozick said. “We’re very privileged compared to other parts of the county.”
He challenged colleges, including two-and-four-year training schools, degree programs and union-sponsored apprenticeships, to better incorporate “employability skills” into occupation-specific education. He said it’s good that colleges focus on training for specific jobs, but often those skills don’t align with what employers look for in new hires.
“We know that the workforce is in the process of changing, in terms of technology and digital communication and automation of tasks,” Bozick said. “Colleges really need to be mindful of making sure that they’re preparing students in terms of abstract thinking and data science.”
Bozick said universities and training programs often work slowly and can’t always keep up with the changing demands of industry.
“My challenge to employers is: how can they take the lead and engage with colleges, since they are the direct beneficiary of their students?” Bozick asked.
In practice, he said, colleges should increase the number of internships and apprenticeship programs on-site, where students would have to demonstrate proficiency in real-life situations.
Pierpont Community and Technical College School of Workforce Development Dean Denney Mills said it could also mean contextualizing industry skills into core classes.
“A lot of the schools are going more toward that,” Mills said. “Where they can do the logical thinking, basic hydraulics, basic electricity, where they can take the concepts of those and carry them through their career and make those technology changes.”
Pierpont is a member of ShaleNET, a consortium of colleges and corporations in Marcellus Shale footprint focusing on “workforce investment.” Partially funded by a $20 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration, ShaleNET is what Bozick called a “shining star example” of industry and educational collaboration.
One of the program’s current focuses includes preparing workers for the Royal Dutch Shell’s Beaver County cracker plant, which is expected to open around 2020.
“It really is a prime example of industry sitting down with colleges very seriously and not just giving lip service to this idea of contextualized learning, but developing programs that are trying to really do it on the ground,” Bozick said.
Mills said he’s encountered problems collaborating with industry at Pierpont, but has tried to remedy them by bringing in his own experiences in the natural gas field to higher education, where the pace of change is much slower.
“We’re bringing the culture of industry to academia,” Mills said. “Most of our instructors were from the industry. We’re not taking the attitude of ‘This is academia; This is how it works.’ It shouldn’t work that way.”
Pennsylvania is the second-largest natural gas producer in the country, outputting more than 4 trillion cubic feet in 2014. There are 500 degree or certificate programs related to the oil and natural gas industry in the tri-state region.
Bozick said increasing the amount of on-the-job training would also help plug the forecasted hole in qualified workers, especially those whose duties are expected to eventually become automated. RAND’s survey of companies found that 52 percent of jobs required moderate-to-long-term on-the-job training, which would last 12 months or longer.
“I just tell folks who represent employers and industry that you have to take a bit more responsibility for job trends,” Bozick said. “You can’t just continue to plunge it back to schools. You have workers who are intending to spend careers in your industry.”
The RAND study was conducted with $1.5 million in funding from the National Science Foundation.