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Hiring in shale industry shifts to engineering, construction workers

Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
A drilling worker works on a drill pad operated by Noble Energy near the Majorsville wet-gas area in West Virginia on Friday, March, 7, 2014.

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Gas companies operating in and around the Marcellus shale say they are increasingly hiring skilled workers for engineering and construction jobs as the industry matures beyond the rush to drill wells.

The high-paying jobs accounted for 26.5 percent of new hires last year, according to a survey of member companies that the Marcellus Shale Coalition will release on Tuesday. That percentage increased from 10.8 percent in last year's survey by the North Fayette-based group.

Hiring for equipment operations, which accounted for nearly 30 percent of new workers in 2012, dropped to about 23 percent.

Analysts who did not participate in the survey said the changes could reflect a move in the industry from a focus on drilling wells to building what they call the midstream infrastructure — the pipelines and other equipment that moves natural gas from wells to processors, power plants and other customers.

“The first horse out of the gate is upstream. Now as that's maturing, you see more in the midstream or downstream development,” said Dave Pistner, director of energy initiatives at Penn State University's Pennsylvania College of Technology.

Rose Baker, a researcher at Penn State's Workforce Education and Development program, said the gas industry, which started drilling in the Marcellus only 10 years ago, “is preparing for the next phase.” That requires hiring experienced engineers who Pistner said are in shorter supply as companies aggressively target other shale formations rich in natural gas.

The coalition survey found companies plan to hire 2,000 more employees in 2014. The largest group will be in engineering and construction.

“Shale development represents a generational opportunity for our Commonwealth. Since day one, our industry has focused on fostering the growth of a skilled and well-trained local workforce to ensure that lifelong opportunities are being fully realized,” Dave Spigelmyer, president of the coalition, said in announcing the survey's results.

Most new hires last year came from Marcellus states, with 60 percent coming from Pennsylvania, the survey found. That's an increase from the previous year, when in-state hires dropped to about 57 percent.

The industry has encountered criticism for a lack of local hiring as companies brought more experienced— and therefore higher paid — workers from states such as Texas. The coalition previously had said it struggled to find Pennsylvania welders to work on pipelines.

Tracy Brundage, vice president for workforce development at Penn College, noted that many college programs aimed at training people for work in the gas fields and related industries are turning out trained graduates ripe for hire.

“The focus in the beginning was entry-level. Now we're trying to hit other pockets of need,” she said.

David Conti is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.

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