Oct. 16, 2015 02:22 PM
Dr. Willie Smith with the hydraulic and pneumatic equipment for student training at SLCC
Photo by Robin May

Starting this fall, students can enroll to prepare for a job in a high-paying industry with as many ups and downs as a roller coaster ride.

This too shall pass, and when this downturn turns around — as it always does — the local oil patch will be looking to fill lots of posts with educated and skilled workers. And South Louisiana Community College believes it will provide those companies with just the right candidates.

High-demand, high-wage has always been the name of the game when it comes to our local oil and gas industry.

Young people looking to enter the market are often pulled away from college or training programs — some right out of high school — with the promise of competitive salaries and steady hours (though we all know the cyclical nature of the industry means those jobs can vanish quickly.)

But when local companies are looking to fill jobs, workers with little or no training aren’t typically the best investment.

This past spring, industry, education and economic development partners all took a seat at the table, so to speak, to try and address the issue. Their solution: courses for oil and gas workers offered through South Louisiana Community College.

Dr. Willie Smith, vice chancellor for economic and workforce development at SLCC, says the college has never had an oil and gas program before. “We’ve had teaching certification programs, but never a formal program, so members of the industry approached us about developing a curriculum in industrial technology,” he says.

Smith and other representatives from SLCC met with the Lafayette Economic Development Authority and leaders and training directors from area oil companies, including Frank’s International, Stone Energy, Superior Energy, Quality Companies, Weatherford, Baker Hughes and Halliburton, to determine how potential students could be better prepared to enter the workforce.

“A lot of our technical programs are related to oil and gas, like welding and machine tools, so it seemed like a natural progression,” says SLCC Communications and Marketing Director Christine Payton. “We pride ourselves with the technical programs. All of them are hands-on, and we revamp often to make sure we can prepare those students and get them out into the workforce quickly.”

Turnaround time is key in an ever-changing industry, so the program SLCC is preparing to launch this fall would run for one year or three semesters and consist of 45 credit hours. Smith says students would start out getting an introduction to oil and gas production, and then move into more specific aspects like instrumentation, hydraulics, pneumatics, electrical, well completion and safety. An internship component would also be available as an elective.

SLCC is waiting on approval from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to officially launch the program, but classes are expected to be available in October on a non-credit basis, with students granted credit once approval is official.

Courses will be held at the New Iberia campus and have some crossover with the college’s welding and machine tools programs. Funds from a $20,000 donation from The Grainger Foundation are being used to retrofit the campus’s welding shop, which should be complete by the end of the year. Smith says the donation offers validation to the program and will also be used to fund internships and a scholarship.

Companies like Frank’s International have offered to donate equipment for training and will be able to shorten or even eliminate some of their own training programs as a result of the curriculum. Jacke West, process improvement manager at Frank’s, says the company has its own full-service training center with a land-based drill rig, but training can take up to 90 days or more and slow down the time it takes for workers to enter the field.

“The benefit SLCC would give to us is they [new hires] would already have a fundamental understanding of energy sources in and around how the equipment operates,” West says. “We do know that, historically, these types of programs have helped the turnaround rate in the welding business, so when an employee comes knocking, they already have some understanding of what will be asked of them.”

Payton says the program is basically 100 percent job placement, with the salary for a service operator starting around $41,000 a year. West says Frank’s hopes to be able to hire a quarter of the students going through the program at any given time. “It’s not a big stretch to get five companies hiring and the program’s a hit,” he adds. “A lot of what we look for in screening entry-level employees is the ability or desire to finish things, and having finished that class speaks to their work ethic and gives them a leg up on their competition.”

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