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Gas industry remedies 'brain drain' in Western Pennsylvania

| Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014, 5:23 p.m.
Heidi Murrin | trib total media
Crawford County native Justin Welker had to move to North Carolina in 2006 to find work as a biological fisherman. But when the Marcellus shale boom began in Pennsylvania, Welker was able to secure a job as a water supervisor with Range Resources. He, his wife, Alyssa, and their son, Easton, now live in Wexford.
Sean Stipp | Trib Total Media
Sacha Kathuria, an attorney, takes a picture in her Unity office on Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014. Kathuria has been able to stay in her hometown of Greensburg because of her work in the oil and gas industry.

For Justin Welker, Western Pennsylvania was always home.

His friends were here.

His family was here.

Unfortunately, his job wasn't.

When Welker graduated from California University of Pennsylvania in 2006 with a degree in fisheries management, he had to move to North Carolina to find work as a biological fisherman for the state.

Then came the Marcellus shale boom. Welker, 33 and living in Wexford, was able to return home, landing a job as water supervisor with Range Resources, a leading independent oil and natural gas producer in the region.

The Crawford County native is an example of what experts believe is the natural gas industry's gradual reversal of the region's decades-old “brain drain,” the mass exodus of young, educated workers to other states because there were no local jobs for them.

It's a reversal that includes workers in fields other than those typically in demand by drilling companies, experts said, pointing to new positions in public relations, law, accounting and other specialized areas such as Welker's.

“It (the gas industry) was a chance for me to move back home and get in on the ground level of something and make a difference,” Welker said.

He feels good about the work he's doing.

“This isn't the big, bad oil field that's out there killing the world. When we leave, we leave it better than we found it,” he said.

The impact is real

But the impact from shale drilling goes well beyond the drilling sites.

“The effect on retail and services is real,” said Robert Strauss, professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University. “More restaurant meals are being sold, more hotel rooms are being filled, there are infrastructure improvements, which are often local and regional.”

From 2009 to 2013, jobs in ancillary industries — sub-contractors, distributors and suppliers of necessary equipment — increased almost 16 percent, according to state Department of Labor and Industry numbers.

When the gas boom began in earnest about 2007, the bulk of the new hires were from oil-rich states such as Texas and Oklahoma, as the fledgling industry was seeking workers experienced with drilling operations.

Researchers estimate an average of 65 percent to 75 percent of all new Marcellus workers are Pennsylvania residents, according to the state.

Sacha Kathuria grew up believing she'd have to leave Greensburg to find work.

“In high school, the expectation was that you had to leave,” she said.

Kathuria, 31, now living in Unity, graduated from law school in 2010 when the economy wasn't doing so well and lawyers were being laid off.

But she found a job with a local firm — Sean Cassidy Associates — handling land leases and other matters related to the industry, helping her avoid taking her job search out of the state.

“Everyone was talking about Marcellus shale,” she said. “Oil and gas wasn't even on my radar.”

But four years later, “I'm sitting in Greensburg where I was born and am learning from one of the top experts in the field.”

The shift

The natural gas boom is helping to reverse a downward spiral that began with the fall of the once-mighty steel industry in the 1980s, a collapse that sent thousands of Western Pennsylvanians elsewhere to work.

Between 1970 and 1990, the region lost 158,000 manufacturing jobs and more than 289,000 residents, according to University of Pittsburgh researcher Bob Gradeck.

But that had changed by 2010, and more people were moving into the region than moving out, said Chris Briem, regional economist at the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Social and Urban Research.

Starting with the Class of 2010, Washington & Jefferson College, which is in the heart of gas drilling country, reported an increase in the number of students entering the energy field.

W&J graduates have landed jobs in the oil and gas industry in Washington County — as petroleum engineers, land technicians, environmental technicians, data analysts, IT professionals, attorneys, accountants and public relations professionals, said spokeswoman Karen Oosterhous.

More than 237,000 jobs in Pennsylvania are related to Marcellus shale drilling, according to state figures, and more than 5,000 Marcellus-related jobs are available statewide as of July, an increase of 900 over the previous year.

On the fast track

As the gas industry continues to grow, so does the chance for fast-track advancement, according to one worker who started at the bottom but has risen through the ranks.

David Knapp, 30, of Albion in Erie County went to Florida 11 years ago after some college. He worked for a restaurant company, but, “growing up in Pennsylvania, that's where I felt my heart was,” said Knapp, who now lives in Jefferson Hills.

“I saw the influx of natural gas industry people coming from Oklahoma, Texas and other states for Marcellus shale,” Knapp said.

With no experience, he took an entry-level position at FTS International, a provider of well completion services.

Today, he's a district manager for the FTS Washington County district, supervising nearly 500 employees.

Though the gas industry is still young, Knapp's story is not uncommon, said Pamela Percival, a spokeswoman at FTS headquarters in Fort Worth.

“It's not unusual in the oil and gas industry for a go-getter to be promoted, to move up quickly,” she said.

Next generation

Some say the industry's reach is extending well into the region's future, as workers settle down and start families.

Welker and his wife had a son this spring.

Since Range Resources moved into its new regional headquarters at Washington County's sprawling Southpointe business complex in 2012, its 350 employees have welcomed 43 babies, said Mark Windle, a Range Resources spokesman.

“This comes as no surprise, as more than 50 percent of our employees are under the age of 45,” Windle said.

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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