The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


June 19, 2014

Gas shows promise

West Virginia’s persistently high unemployment rate rose again in May, rising from 6 percent of the workforce to 6.3 percent.

That means 51,100 workers in the state are still without jobs.

But the seasonally adjusted numbers did show some promising gains in mining and logging, manufacturing, leisure and hospitality, educational and health services, professional and business services, and other services.

They were offset by declines in trade, transportation and utilities, financial activities and information.

As aggravating as the numbers are, perhaps the most important development in a long-term employment boom also came to our attention this week: Hiring for the blossoming gas industry in north-central West Virginia.

In a meeting of the Joint Committee on Economic Development n Charleston, legislators heard welcome news about jobs being created extracting natural gas and other gas products from the Marcellus shale formation.

It’s an industry that shows tremendous promise for the state, if operators drill responsibly.

James Skidmore, chancellor for community and technical colleges in the state, said workers with one or two years’ training are being hired in the gas industry and making up to $70,000 a year to start.

To us, that sounds like very good news, because when the Marcellus shale drilling began in West Virginia, a great deal of criticism was directed at the exploration and drilling companies for hiring out-of-state workers.

Thanks to programs at community colleges in the north and north-central areas of the state, technical training programs are enabling West Virginians to compete and land those jobs.

“We don’t expect demand for employees to go down over the next 10 to 15 years,” Skidmore told lawmakers.

The two community colleges that have moved quickly to provide educational opportunities to satisfy the demand for workers in the Marcellus shale play can handle up to 200 students in their programs.

Skidmore says the only problem is that, once these students receive some training, companies are hiring them at high-paying jobs even before they graduate.

To us, that sounds like more of a problem for the colleges than it is for somebody trading a classroom for a job making $70,000 a year.

Skidmore says the programs for the gas industry haven't been replicated by community colleges elsewhere in the state, including southern West Virginia.

He said, however, that similar programs for Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College and New River Community and Technical College are  “on the radar.”

Is this an opportunity for coal miners who have been regulated out of a job?

Maybe, he said, but “We’re just not sure they'll move” from southern West Virginia to the north.

Coal miners know how to follow a seam, and they sure know how to follow economic trends. We urge New River and other community colleges to move aggressively to duplicate the programs up north that are making West Virginia gas-field workers so in-demand.

Coal miners deserve an opportunity to follow the money to those high-paying jobs in the Marcellus shale play.

Who knows? If the Utica shale formation ever becomes economically feasible, they can move back to southern West Virginia for jobs here.

If you drill it, they will come.

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