NEW MARTINSVILLE - Much of the talk statewide surrounding West Virginia's growing natural gas industry deals with state workers or what some see as a lack thereof being hired for gas industry jobs.
West Virginia Northern Community College is now doing its part by offering local residents the skills necessary to find work on a drilling rig.
This past week, 20 students traveled to Northern's New Martinsville campus and became the first wave of future drilling rig deckhands to be educated by the college.
Folks such as New Martinsville residents A.J. Meeks and J.J. King hope what they learned during the classes will help them find careers in the natural gas and oil drilling industry.
"I have two kids. My wife and I both work full-time and go to school full-time, and we are having a hard time with it right now," said the 31-year-old King.
Meeks, 28, and King were among 20 students in Northern's inaugural drilling class. The class, which ended Thursday, was the first of what school officials believe will be several they offer as the drilling boom continues throughout the Upper Ohio Valley.
Northern's first class coincided with a push by some state lawmakers and union leaders to get gas companies to hire more West Virginia workers. Sen. Orphy Klempa, D-Ohio, has even threatened to push for a severance tax increase on natural gas if drilling and gas processing companies don't hire more state workers.
The gas industry maintains they would be happy to hire West Virginians as long as they have the proper training. That's where Northern's class comes in.
"There is a lot more to this work than some people realize," said Northern student Rusty Francis, 48, of Wellsburg who has worked in several different factories throughout the area. "You can't expect to just walk onto one of these drilling sites and know what to do."
Francis joined Meeks and King, along with students from Wheeling and Moundsville, to learn about careers as drilling rig deckhands during the class that ran Monday through Thursday. Topics covered during the class included general safety, first aid, CPR, some basic knowledge of the actual drilling process and career opportunities in the field.
"This is the first step to getting local people trained and qualified to do this work," said Larry Tackett, New Martinsville campus dean. "This course is designed with input from drilling companies."
Matt Wyatt, an instructor at Pierpont Community and Technical College in Fairmont, W.Va., made the trip to New Martinsville to teach the class. He said those completing the course would receive an International Association of Drilling Contractors rig pass that allows them to gain entry-level employment at a drilling site. Every student enrolled in the course also submitted to and passed a drug test, Wyatt added.
"Basically, this gives them a leg up when they look to get into the industry," he said of the class. Wyatt also teaches a similar course in Fairmont.
Following three days of classroom instruction, Wyatt took the students to a Chesapeake Energy drilling site in Marshall County to see first-hand where they could work.
Chesapeake spokeswoman Stacey Brodak said her company is glad to be working with the college to provide job training.
"We are very proud of our efforts to employ local workers, and training programs like this one at West Virginia Northern Community College are key to developing a strong regional work force," she said.
King, Meeks and Francis understand that in the drilling business they may need to be willing to move from area to area or even across the country to find work, rather than just go to one particular work site for many years as steel workers and coal miners might do.
"Once my kids are old enough, I would be willing to move around," King said.
Francis said he finds the Marcellus and Utica shale boom exciting, so he wants to see what the industry may have to offer.
"I really think these shale plays can be an energy source for America. It's an exciting time to get into this," he said.
Meeks said he has been searching for a job since graduating from West Virginia Northern earlier this year with a degree in heating, ventilation and air conditioning.
"I think this would be something good to get into," he said. "And doing it through the college will look pretty good on a resume."
Tackett said the Wheeling-based Regional Economic Development Partnership and the Wetzel County Chamber of Commerce agreed to pay the students' tuition for the classes, though he is not certain this will be a continuing practice for any future classes.
"I am excited by the number of students, the variety of students and the support from RED and the chamber," Tackett said. "I would think we will be having more classes like this. We will also be having welding classes that will be specifically geared toward this industry."