Trying to Get a Foot in the Shale Industry

  • Workers train on heavy equipment at a Fayette County, Pa. community college. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

  • Trainees include a former nurse, electrician, and farmhand. Photo: Reid R. Frazier

December 15, 2012

Jimmy Peightal stood in front of an Indiana, Pa. classroom, and showed what he’d sacrificed for his job: his front teeth. He held up a set of false teeth, for everyone in the room to see.

Peightal works for a perforating crew for Baker Hughes, the wellfield services company. He lost his teeth when a worker on a drilling rig mistakenly swung a ball-weighted cable at his head.

“He yelled ‘Heads up,’ so I looked up. I caught it in the face. I spit my teeth out, finished working three hours. Then I went to the hospital.”

Peightal’s tale – and teeth-- didn’t dissuade any of the 12 men huddled around him from their goal: to try to get a job in the oil and gas industry.

The men were training in a community college class from the program ShaleNET, a federally-funded job training program designed to get people jobs in the oil and gas industry. The program arose because many drilling companies operating in the Marcellus shale were bringing in workers from other states.

Finding Workers for the Gas Boom

While the gas boom has brought jobs to Pennsylvania, it has also created a paradox. Despite unemployment rates above 8 percent, many drilling jobs in the state go unfilled. One study found in Western Pennsylvania alone 2000 energy jobs would be hard to fill in the next few years. The author of the study, Laura Fisher of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, spoke with 37 companies in the energy sector.

They told her there were many problems with finding workers. 

“In general [there’s] a real concern there aren’t enough people in the pipeline.”

Part of the problem is many young people have opted for college over jobs they see as dirty or low-skilled. And energy companies say they have a hard time finding applicants who can pass a basic drug test.

Byron Kohut, the director for ShaleNET, says he’s tailored the course after what companies look for in workers.

Companies want workers to have a “strong work ethic, show up for work on time, don’t call off, realize that holidays, you’ll be working,” Kohut said.

The class includes a former restaurant manager, electrician, and nurse.

Mike “Slim” Peightal--Jimmy’s father--is trying to get back into the oil and gas industry, after 15 years away. His son makes $3,300 every two weeks with Baker Hughes. “Compared to working in a plant making $800 every two weeks. So which would you choose?” said Mike Peightal, 55, of Blairsville, Pa.

“This is where the money’s at. You go out there now you’ll be lucky if you get a job for $15 an hour,” he said. “You go to the oil field you’ll be getting $18 to $24 an hour.”

In addition to losing his teeth, Jimmy has a friend who survived a heart attack and lost a finger.

“Luckily the only thing I’ve lost is my teeth,” he said. 

Students quickly learn the other drawbacks of the industry, like the hours.

Bob Hill is one of the instructors, says he listens to students making plans for the holidays. “I’m thinking you know guys I don’t want to tell you this but if you get hired on, there’s not going to be any deer season for you this year, probably not even Christmas.”

A Controversial Industry

Getting a job in fracking -- the use of hydraulic fracturing to blast gas out of rock formations—does come with some controversy. Fracking worries environmentalists like Mel Packer, of Pittsburgh. Packer is a fractivist--an anti-fracking activist. But he doesn’t fault people for trying to find work in the industry.

He says it’s understandable—especially in a state with 8 percent unemployment. “I think what we have to tell people is, if there’s an alternative--take it,” he said. “But understand what you’re getting into here--you’re talking about getting into an industry that’s going to exploit the hell out of you.”

Another controversial aspect of the industry has been its use of out-of-state workers to exploit the Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Hill, a heavy equipment instructor for ShaleNET, said he was peaved, like other Pennsylvanians were, when he saw job sites in his hometown of Wellsboro, Pa., filled with license plates from Texas and Oklahoma.

“I was a little upset when I saw all these people coming in. Then I got to working for them and i realized our workforce was not capable,” Hill said.

Hill said emergency rooms would have been filled if drilling companies had only hired locals, who had no expertise in the industry. But gradually more in-staters have been getting these jobs--about ¾ of new hires are Pennsylvanians, according to the state’s Department of Labor and Industry.

“The men that I know from Texas and Louisiana--their families are still there. They’re here to keep their jobs,” Hill said. “I don’t think any of them are going to put any roots down in Pennsylvania, so what’s that telling you?”

A Choice

It’s telling Jacob Bowser that drilling could be his future. At 18, he’s the youngest in the ShaleNET class. Bowser’s career plans are a kind of microcosm for what Pennsylvania has faced since the natural gas rush arrived. As the debate between environment versus jobs rages, Bowser has had to decide what to do with his life. He’s 18 and from Armstrong County. One of the largest employers there is the coal operator Rosebud Mining.

“The kids from my school, it was either going to college to try to see what they were going to be, or they went to the Rosebud mines. A lot of my friends went to the Rosebud mines.”

Bowser didn’t want to go to the mines--so he signed up for gas training. A few days after the training ended, he got a call for an interview. By the next week, he was on a well pad, learning his new trade.