Quit Whining. The Jobs are Here, and They Are Yours For The Taking
I had hoped this week to produce a detailed report on the employment picture in Bradford County in response to the accusations by many that gas company and gas drilling-related jobs were not going to local residents, and that the industry as a whole is doing more harm than good. Although I have made progress in some aspects of my research, a number of people whom I had hoped would be more forthright with commentary for a feature story have not been so responsive.
What I have learned is that there are more people working in Bradford County than there have been in many years, even before the recession took its toll on local, national, and global economies.
Bradford County’s unemployment rate for March 2011 was 5.9 percent, a drop from 7.9 percent in 2010. Only Centre County has a lower rate—5.6 percent. Bradford County, however, has consistently scored higher over the past year when it comes to the creation of new jobs.
I recently met with Central Bradford Progress Authority executive director Tony Ventello at his office in Towanda and explained that I had come to him to find out where the jobs are and who’s getting them. I had never intended to put him on the defensive but, after pounding the meeting room table with his fist, he related that he was growing tired of the question. I assured him that I too was tired of hearing that all of the good jobs were going to influx workers and that I needed him to fill me in on what all of the people who have regularly lashed out at the Bradford County Commissioners apparently do not know.
“The big misnomer is that these jobs are going to guys from Texas and Oklahoma, and that’s not true,” said Ventello, who is not the first person with whom I’ve spoken who admits that the gas industry took the area off guard. It seems that there has been just as much time playing catch-up as there has been trying to roll the whole ball of wax forward.
“Who could have predicted or planned for it? This has happened to us very quickly,” Ventello continued. “It has been an exercise in critical thinking.”
Ventello has traveled with groups of elected officials, civil servants, and leaders of other agencies to Texas and other areas to study the impact of gas drilling on infrastructure, the environment, and the economy. While some observed what they saw and tried to apply a similar-case scenario to Bradford County, Ventello related that he intentionally studied the differences.
From an environmental standpoint, Ventello noted as an example that there are not as many people dependent on groundwater in Texas. He understands the heightened sense of concern for water safety here, where the rural community is spread out with more privately owned wells.
One of the chief concerns that he had while he was in Texas, however, was the fact that Bradford County’ workforce was not diverse enough to meet the needs of the gas companies. “In Texas, everybody’s Grandpop had worked in oil fields,” said Ventello, adding that Bradford County’s deep pool of industry-savvy workers had diminished significantly over the years. That reality spurred him and many others into action to begin training a new work force as quickly as possible. The cold hard fact from the beginning was that residents of Bradford and surrounding counties were not up to the job, which is why the gas companies were able to attract so many workers from outside the area to initially fill key positions. I can understand how that angered some people, but, let’s face it, you don’t get to drive the fork-lift at the do-it-yourself store if you’ve only ever mowed lawns or waited tables at the local diner. If you want the good, skilled-labor or management-level positions, you have to take a proactive approach to the job market, which may mean buckling down for a year or two to reeducate and retrain yourself. Check into the many courses now being offered locally by Lackawanna and Keystone colleges, as well as the Pennsylvania College of Technology, at their respective websites, and you will find two-year courses that cover many aspects of the natural gas industry, including pneumatics, electronic instrumentation and control, and micro-economics.
Ventello and Northern Tier Regional Planning and Development Commission deputy director Frank Thompson are already seeing positive results from training programs and industry-related college courses that their respective agencies have sponsored and supported over the past few years.
Thompson recalls that, when touring a gas-drilling site for the first time two years ago, “There were no locals on site.” During his most recent tour, “Almost half of those on site were from Pennsylvania,” he explained, noting that a growing number of locals are now qualified for entry-level positions and the experienced-based promotions will come over time.
“The industry seems to have a strong career ladder and promotion from within,” Thompson continued. “The drilling superintendent on the rig has 20 years experience and has worked his/her way up from an entry-level position.”
The gas companies have extended their own training and housing programs to locals as well. Chesapeake Energy spokesman Rory Sweeney took issue with statements made last month at Bradford County Commissioners’ meetings about temporary housing sites, referred to by some as “man camps.” These sites are accessible to all workers, Sweeney noted, not just those from outside the area.
Ventello pointed out that many of the new jobs created by the gas-drilling boom are in supporting businesses. “A lot of companies have converted and have some services that are focused on the industry,” he noted. Truck drivers and welders are in obvious demand, but an expansion in the railroading industry is also a direct result of the gas boom.
At its Sayre translator, for instance, Lehigh Railway LLC reported the passing of 2,000 to 2,500 cars per year prior to the start of gas drilling. Ventello expects that number to exceed 12,000 this year, especially if enough work can be completed to make the lines stronger, safer, and faster. That’s good news for the community at large, he added, because redevelopment of railroads will alleviate some of the traffic problems on our roadways.
Ventello advises as well that those seeking jobs should set their sites beyond the gas boom, as the Progress Authority has been for the past year.
“We’ve started looking at the next level of service to see what we need to train people for,” he stated. Having a sense that development agencies such as his have caught up and now have a better understanding of what has already happened, he suggested, has allowed planners to take “a more mature approach to the next level.”
“We really need to look at ‘value-added’ gas activity,” Ventello continued, meaning that it is time to develop and attract businesses that use natural gas and that would benefit from being closer to the source. “To focus on just one industry can become dangerous. I don’t want to see us go too far in one direction or another.”
Bradford County is also in a good position, he added, to attract alternative energy industries, especially if the infrastructure and work force can support them. Some examples Ventello offered include energy fuel cell development and photo voltaics.
The gas boom is likely to continue to dominate and steer the economy for at least the next five years, and Thompson encourages existing companies to take in the larger picture and figure out how to assimilate to what is already happening.
“A considerable amount of job growth has come from local employers tweaking their model to serve the industry,” he remarked, citing food caterers and port-o-potty companies as just two examples. Thompson invites those in need of a job or job advancement to attend one of many job fairs sponsored by Northern Tier Regional Planning and Development Commission’s CareerLinks, which are held at various locations in Bradford and surrounding counties. More information can be found online at www.bradfordcountypa.org/work/.
Sadly, my requests for solid employment data from the major gas companies in the area have gone unanswered. Among the questions that I had hoped to pose to industry representatives was, “What are you experiencing in terms of the work ethic of prospective local employees?” I ask this because I have heard a few too many stories of locals applying for jobs with gas companies and turning down offers that required “too many” hours. My concern is that many employable people in the area grew complacent during leaner times and have convinced themselves that getting by on part-time or barely full-time employment is an acceptable way of life.
To those who aren’t accustomed to working hard for a living or who feel under-qualified for this new era of opportunity, I say, “No Pain, No Gain” and “Carpe Diem!” That’s Latin for “Get up off your lazy butt and get to work!” You’ve run out of excuses.