Oil and gas companies court military veterans as shale boom grows

John MacZura, an Army infantry veteran, started work a week after graduation.

Before receiving his petroleum engineering degree from Penn State in 2013, Mr. MacZura, 30, had already piqued the interest of five or six oil and gas companies. He had job offers from three. He eventually joined Houston-based Cabot Oil and Gas, where he now works as a completions engineer.

“The military plays a large part in how I got to where I’m at today,” said Mr. MacZura. He spent four years stationed at the Schofield Barracks in Hawaii and two in the National Guard.

“I can’t say I was a commodity, but I was definitely sought after by companies,” he said.

Finding work in the energy sector isn't a new concept for veterans, but there has been an increased interest in recent years due to the shale gas boom. Carl Dokter, a development manager with Fort Worth-based Range Resources, has seen this trend first hand.

“When the Marcellus kicked off in earnest in 2008-09, I would say there were two or three of us,” said Mr. Dokter, a veteran field artillery officer.

Now, he said, he can walk to every floor in the company’s five-story Southpointe location and see a veteran.

Veterans are valuable workers for oil-and-gas companies because they have transferable skills that appeal to employers, veterans advocates say. They are no strangers to working long hours at remote locations, such as drill sites, or being away from their families for weeks at a time.

“The traits that the military imparts on the men and women — loyalty, courage, safety, commitment, leadership, teamwork — are all valued by employers in this industry,” said Dave Pistner, director of energy initiatives at the Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport. “It’s a natural fit for our troops leaving active service.”

College alternatives

Sean Rooney, a production engineer at Range Resources, is another veteran who returned to school after his service. Like Mr. MacZura, Mr. Rooney also graduated from Penn State with a degree in petroleum engineering.

For both men, the GI Bill covered all or parts of their tuition. But, they said, college is not for everyone.

Some of Mr. MacZura’s friends chose instead to join the Retrain America program, created in 2009 in Austin, Texas. It offers college-level training programs to help veterans and blue-collar workers attain high-skilled jobs in oil and gas.

“I had friends who started out as welders and roustabouts, worked their way up, and after they got trained they were placed into every day field jobs,” Mr. MacZura said. “They’re actually doing really well.”

Schools such as Westmoreland Community College in Youngwood and the Pennsylvania College of Technology also provide training programs for veterans.

Westmoreland Community College was awarded $5 million by the U.S. Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration in 2010 to create a program to train veterans for upstream jobs. In 2012, the Pennsylvania College of Technology was awarded $15 million for a secondary training program for midstream and downstream jobs through the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training program.

Since 2010, ShaleNET has placed more than 3,400 students in upstream jobs such as welding. 

“They can come in entry level, work their way up to a one-year certificate in all segments of the industry they choose, and then advance onto attaining an associate degree,” said Mr. Pistner, who oversees the ShaleNET program at the Pennsylvania College of Technology.

Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas, and Stark State College in Canton, Ohio, are also involved in ShaleNET, which is a benefit for those looking to accept a position or re-locate.

“We could have someone start out in Williamsport as a roustabout and have them transfer and finish their schooling at Navarro College,” Mr. Pistner said.

The program also offers an all-encompassing approach to training to help prepare veterans for different kinds of shale plays and terrains.

“What’s nice about ShaleNET is we’re able to tailor their training to meet the expectations,” Mr. Pistner said. “North Dakota is going to be different than the Marcellus. Each area has its own uniqueness.”

Paving the way

Of the 93,339 veterans in the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, 51.3 percent have expressed an interest in shale-related jobs, according to the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board, a Downtown group that connects employers and workers.

And while the opportunities exist, some might not know where to start. Some organizations, such as the South Side-based Veteran’s Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania, help veterans transition to civilian life.

“One of the challenges for the Marcellus Shale industry is finding the veterans,” said Kyle Steffen, the program’s workforce development manager.

In January, the organization started a program and has since placed 15 veterans in the industry.

“For some of the veterans, what they've done in the military is similar to what they would do in the Marcellus Shale,” Mr. Steffen said. “The workforce development program is helping because the veterans are hearing their buddies are finding jobs through us.”

In addition to work habits, veterans possess technical and specialty skills needed for shale gas development.

“[Some] men and women in the military were heavy equipment operators and truck drivers. One of the big positions in the industry is the [commercial driver’s license],” Mr. Steffen said. “They had to get licenses transferred over, and we've helped with that. Truck drivers are in very high demand.”

Mr. Rooney said skills he learned during his six years in the Air Force helped him with his new vocation. He focused heavily on logistics, which he said was almost a one-for-one translation to his current job.

“Oil and gas has a lot of very complex logistic operations all geared towards achieving a result,” he said. “We have to do a lot of work to be able to get something done in a precise manner.”

For Mr. MacZura, it’s all about the military mentality.

“Hard work, dedication and know-how are what you learn in the military and it’s the same in oil and gas,” he said.

Curtis Roberts is a measurement supervisor in Consol Energy’s natural gas sector and an Army Reserve veteran. The 33-year-old said it’s easy to compare his current job to his military service.

“In the military you’re always training to be better, and at Consol it’s the same thing,” he said. “They don’t want you to be stagnant. They always want you to get better.”

Madasyn Czebiniak: mczebiniak@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1269. Twitter: @PG_Czebiniak

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