In the past few years, a wave of schools geared to training students in science and mathematics in the hope of creating the next generation of oil and gas professionals have popped up in several oil-producing states.
Oil and gas-related jobs have been in steep decline since the downturn, but administrators at these schools say the downturn is not affecting their mission, since there will always be a need for skilled workers with a STEM-based education.
“Despite the current conditions in the industry, our vision remains the same,” said Eric Sampson, director of the Utica Shale Academy in Salineville, Ohio. “We want to prepare students for employment or further education in the oil and gas industry.”
The Utica Shale Academy opened in 2014 as a tuition-free publicly-funded high school and allows students to earn a diploma as well as oil and gas-related skills certifications. Students learn about the upstream and downstream operations of the petroleum industry and also have the opportunity to earn college credit. The academy has expanded to two sites, with 72 students, Sampson said, with plans to expand to other Utica Shale play hotspots.
“Our location is a prime area for the Utica Shale play,” he said, noting that steel mills were at one time the main labor market in the area. “As those opportunities waned, coal became a large employer. Over time, that too has dwindled. The oil and gas industry has become one of the largest employers in our area with the potential for long-term employment.”
According to the school, Ohio employs more than 178,000 people in the oil and gas industry, accounting for $798 million in salaries annually.
In Texas, more than 550 students in grades nine through 11 are enrolled at the Energy Institute High School in Houston. The school, which opened in 2013, has added a grade level each year and has expanded to include 800 students, said Noelle MacGregor, dean of students.
The school is also expected to open a $37 million permanent facility in the fall of 2017 that will feature various energy and science labs throughout the building as well as outdoor learning spaces, MacGregor said.
“The new building will be designed with the energy industry and project-based learning in mind,” she added.
The current downturn within the industry will not affect the school’s plans for growth, MacGregor said, given the cyclical nature of the industry.
“Energy is not an industry that is going to disappear,” she said. “It will change and evolve over time and we are going to need people to fill those future jobs. Our students will be prepared to take on new challenges in the industry because we focus so heavily on building the 21st century skills necessary to be successful in any career.”
Those skills include teaching students how to think about solving problems and how to develop math and science-based skills. “All of these skills are highly transferrable to many jobs across STEM-career fields,” MacGregor said.
Energy Institute High School is one of five high schools within the Houston and Forth Worth Independent School Districts focusing on engineering, geosciences and leadership. The schools are part of the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) and the Petroleum Equipment Suppliers Association (PESA) Energy Education Center.
Center for Education
Anne Ford, executive director of the IPAA/PESA Energy Education Center, said the center started with a simple idea almost a decade ago to make mathematics and science more relevant within public schools and to address the aging workforce in the engineering and geoscience fields. The industries are projected to lose 50 percent of their workforce to retirement in the next 10 years, she said. IPAA partnered with PESA in 2012. There are currently 1,225 students enrolled across the five academies.
The center’s mission is to introduce students to careers in energy early on – not when they are looking for work – and provide an understanding of what it would be like to work for a petroleum company, Ford noted.
No matter where the price of natural gas falls, there will be a necessary need for a “crew change,” Ford said, and that is why it is crucial to expose current and future generations to technology and innovation.
“Tomorrow’s energy problems will be solved by today’s young people pursuing challenging STEM academic studies and careers and entering the energy industry,” Ford said. “Hence, the energy industry continues to invest in today’s youth.”
In August, the North American Prospect Expo Partners presents a $100,000 donation to the center. The money will help fund the center’s guest speaker lectures on teamwork and business, college site visits and industry-related competitions at the five academies, among other things.
Meanwhile, students in North Dakota have the opportunity to learn about the oil and gas industry thanks to a combined effort between the industry and education leaders. The curriculum, called ENERGY: Powered by North Dakota, was launched in 2014 and follows science, social studies and common core standards at the fourth and eighth-grade levels, said Emily McKay, director of the Great Plains Energy Corridor at Bismarck State College’s National Energy Center of Excellence.
It’s important for students in the state to know about North Dakota’s energy resources, McKay said.
“Not only is energy a vital industry and economic engine for our state, it’s also a highly tech-advanced and innovative industry,” she said. “As students learn about energy in the state, they get excited about STEM.”
Students can watch videos of a dragline operator at work, the construction of a wind turbine, time-lapse of drilling and more, and then teachers can link that information to what’s happening in the students’ backyards, McKay said.
“Even with a downturn in the oil industry, a highly-skilled workforce is still needed for long-term industry jobs,” she said. “These are great careers for our students, as they typically pay well and offer opportunities in continuing education and advancement.”