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Natural gas could help mitigate high jobless rates in Southeastern Pennsylvania

Last updated: August 04. 2014 11:10PM - 2133 Views
By Jon O'Connell joconnell@civitasmedia.com



Cabot Oil & Gas employee Jeremiah Howell walks through the steps of drilling a natural gas well for Wendy Jackson-Dowe of Harrisburg. Jackson-Dowe was one of about 25 people from Southeastern Pennsylvania who visited natural-gas operations in Susquehanna County on Monday to learn about opportunities for laborers in their part of the state.
Cabot Oil & Gas employee Jeremiah Howell walks through the steps of drilling a natural gas well for Wendy Jackson-Dowe of Harrisburg. Jackson-Dowe was one of about 25 people from Southeastern Pennsylvania who visited natural-gas operations in Susquehanna County on Monday to learn about opportunities for laborers in their part of the state.
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DIMOCK — Philadelphia-area community leaders had to see firsthand whether Pennsylvania's gas industry can help abate their floundering employment statistics.
About 25 business and community leaders from Southeastern Pennsylvania traveled Monday to Susquehanna County for a primer on the opportunity still locked up in Marcellus Shale natural gas reserves.
There is an unemployment crisis in Philadelphia, Anthony Ross, an urban workforce developer from the city, said.
“There's no question there's a need,” Ross said, while walking across Cabot Oil & Gas' sprawling Hawk 4-H well pad in Springville Township, not too far south of Dimock.
The group first visited the site where workers puttered around a drilling rig that deliberately spun a shaft more than 8,000 feet down below the earth's surface.
White-collar employers have dominated as of late over the blue-collar job makers in the southeastern region, and now unemployment rates, especially for black people, remain high. Ross said blacks outrank whites in unemployment three-to-one.
About 6.8 percent of Philadelphians are unemployed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics — about 1 percentage point higher than the statewide average. Wilkes-Barre is at 7 percent unemployment; Scranton is at 6.7 percent.
A host of other problems, specifically crime, tags along behind joblessness.
“It really drives a lot of the other issues we're dealing with as a society,” Ross said.
About a dozen organizations were represented by local officials and business leaders from Philadelphia and Harrisburg. The tour was organized by American Petroleum Institute (API) and hosted by Cabot and Lackawanna College.
The inquisitive group asked about training requirements, work-to-personal-time ratios and the industry's interest in seeking laborers — most of whom probably would need to be trained from the bottom up — from the state's urban southeast.
Ultimately, they were looking to answer two questions:
• Is there room in the Marcellus Shale industry for ambitious laborers from Southeastern Pennsylvania?
• Are more jobs on the way for workers who want to stay in their hometowns?
It seemed the answer to both was a resounding “yes.”
“There's going to be a lot of jobs in the 'downstream' part of it,” API of Pennsylvania Executive Director Stephanie Wissman said of the gas' final stop. Downstream refers to the end user, be it a home furnace, a chemical factory that breaks down the gas to make plastics, or a school district that decides to heat its halls with gas instead of oil or electricity.
Wissman said corporations near Philadelphia are eyeing natural gas as a cheaper energy supply, and as factories and chemical plants look to tap into the local supply, they're likely going to create jobs by hiring their own employees and, through increased demand, add workers necessary to keep distribution and utility pipelines running.
Nancy E. Mifflin is the Mid-Atlantic regional director for American Association of Blacks in Energy with an office in Philadelphia. It was a conference in April that connected her with Wissman and desRosiers, at a time when she was contemplating the dramatic shift in energy production. She was often asked, “Where are the jobs?”
So they organized a tour to find out, she said.
“How can we tell them about it if we haven't seen it ourselves?” Mifflin said.
Wendy Jackson-Dowe, a Harrisburg businesswoman, pressed the gas experts on minority acceptance and diversity on places like well pads and pipeline crews.
Jackson-Dowe, who is black, pointed out that just about everyone there on the Hawk well pad that day was a white male. How would the other workers act if faced with an influx of “people like us?” Jackson-Dowe said.
DesRosiers said it's experience, work ethic and absence of a criminal record that help land someone a job for Cabot. He motioned to a Cabot safety officer, Santos Gomez, who is of Latino decent, and said non-white workers get along just fine.
DesRosiers said there are women gas rig workers, women welders, and women engineers, just not as many as the men.
“They're out there,” he said. “They might not be as prolifically out there (as men), but they're out there.”
The tour continued past Elk Lake School District, where the Susquehanna Career and Technology Center recently added a welding program to whet the interests of high-schoolers who may one day decide to work for a gas company.
And finally they stopped at Lackawanna College School of Petroleum and Natural Gas in New Milford, a two-year college that Cabot endowed this year with a $2.5 million grant.
The five-year-old program boasts a 95 percent job placement rate for the some 100 graduates it has produced.
The school's assistant director, Steve Voytek, said when building the school, planners visited other two-year colleges around the country to harvest ideas. And, at least by their questions, it seemed the classroom full of southerners wanted to know how they could duplicate the model in their own towns.

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