Innovations In Workforce Training, Education

January 2014, Vol. 241 No. 1

Richard Nemec, Contributing Editor

As technology and innovations continue to drive the U.S. oil and natural gas renaissance, there is similar momentum behind new approaches to the challenge of training and education for a rapidly changing workforce. The shale revolution has been characterized by continuous efficiency improvements in the drilling and pipeline sectors, and the same is true for the typical company classroom.

While the operators in onshore shale plays are moving into ever-deeper and harsher environments to extract new resources, training is trying to mirror that new environment, make it more understandable, and provide a new edge for the average worker. With the advent of wholesale retirements among Baby Boomer-era experienced energy field workers, including many engineers and geologists, the industry expects a lot of fresh new faces in the years ahead.

“More training is coming to the oil/gas companies,” says Torrance Haggerty, oil/natural gas program leader at Battelle’s relatively new Houston operations. “Majors, independents, E&Ps, and service companies will all be involved, and a major part of the push will focus on how to get the training into the organization.”

How the training is provided and who provides it is evolving with the changing framework of the industry. The groups being trained are broader-based, some even include international attendees. While the traditional instructor-led, classroom sessions are still the norm, the advent of distance learning – e-learning, webinars and self-guided Internet-based programs – are growing in use and diversity.

“Today, about 20% of our training is on a self-study basis,” says Ron Rinholm, executive director for education and business development at the Des Plaines, IL-based Gas Technology Institute (GTI), which has trained more than 65,000 participants since it opened its doors in 1941.
Ron Rinholm
“There is a lot of training both internally and by third parties, such as GTI, that is growing both domestically and internationally,” Rinholm says. “It really is driven by the overall approaches being applied [in the oil and gas sectors].” The training is continuously trying to stay ahead of what Rinholm calls a “technology front that is continuing to advance.”

GTI conducts training in some junior colleges throughout North America on shale gas for individual companies and some of their new employees or contract/service companies with which they are working. The training attempts to address the subject matter of technology, technology’s evolution, awareness of regulations and compliance requirements, in addition to the demographic challenge of facing an ever-growing volume of retirements throughout the industry globally.

“There is a fairly dramatic increase of new entrants coming into the industry with a more complicated picture than there was 20 or 30 years ago,” says Rinholm, an engineer with an MBA who directs GTI’s marketing, communications and business development programs, in addition to education and training.

Global offshore exploration and production (E&P) giant, Statoil has been a relatively new participant in the U.S. shale boom, moving to onshore North American plays only in the past five years, so training has become a strategic tool for the company, according to Kevin O’Donnell, vice president for drilling, well and operations support in Statoil’s U.S. onshore operations.

With operations in three major shale basins in Texas, North Dakota and Pennsylvania, Statoil has moved from a series of joint ventures to launching E&P programs on its own. In the process it has applied its internal company philosophy of “learning from one another.”

At first, that meant soaking up all the knowledge and expertise it could from its partners in initial joint venture shale plays, and more recently it has meant using its operators from one basin to provide review and insight to workers in one of the other basins (Eagle Ford, Bakken or Marcellus) where the company is expanding its operations.

For drilling and well completion training of crews, Statoil conducted two workshops in which workers from the Bakken reviewed in detail what went right and what didn’t work so well, drawing on the critiques of crews from the other basins. “This leads to a direct transfer of know-how at the process level so new learning is taken directly to operations,” says a Statoil spokesperson familiar with the training.

O’Donnell says Statoil adheres to a corporate standard of deploying only what he called “the most modern of drilling equipment,” and with that operating philosophy come accompanying workforce training/education requirements. In many cases, this means the drilling contractors provide crews with training.

“The contractors have long experience in operations, and the training for workers is specific to each rig,” says O’Donnell, noting that work processes are rewritten and onsite training in equipment operation is provided by suppliers and contractors completing the well site E&P work for Statoil. He cites the example of equipment-supplier representatives coming to the well site to teach roughnecks how to operate the new automated pipe-handling equipment that was installed on several rigs.

With the start of the 2013-14 academic year, universities in the energy production heartland in Oklahoma and Wyoming were opening new centers, funded by major energy companies and aimed at critical operating areas, such as natural gas compression and the more sophisticated geologic analysis characterizations that are increasingly critical to development of shale plays.

Signifying the industry’s commitment to advancing training/education, Oklahoma-based Chesapeake Energy Corp. donated $2 million of the $4.9 million OSU Institute of Technology’s (OSUIT) new gas compression center in Okmulgee, OK, named for Chesapeake at Oklahoma State University (OSU). At the University of Wyoming (UW), Hess Corp. donated $4.4 million for the advanced rock physics lab in the university’s new Energy Innovation Center in Laramie. Other companies joining Chesapeake as major contributors to the Oklahoma center are Devon Energy, ONEOK, and Energy Transfer Partners. OSU officials said the companies have “helped turn an industry dream into a reality.”

Gas compression, a critical component of operations at well sites, processing plants and along the nation’s network of gas pipelines, has experienced a lot of technological advances in recent years, and the 23,920-square-foot center at OSUIT plans to double the students it graduates annually with associate in applied science degrees in natural gas compression. In addition to students in the OSU program, industry workers are being trained at the center on hands-on equipment.

In a macro sense, what these efforts in individual states point out is that the combination of rapidly advancing technology and accelerating retirement rates among the energy industry skilled workforce is increasing the pressures on industry training/education programs and resources. That explains why one of the major reports at the International Gas Union’s (IGU) 2012 World Gas Conference examined the challenge of “Building Strategic Human Capital.”

The IGU report identifies “people” as a key element for the energy industry to continue its unprecedented growth, and it noted that recent surveys cited international oil/gas companies identifying a “shortage of talent” as one of the industry’s biggest challenges in future years.

“The gas industry needs to recruit thousands of technical staff during the next five years, both graduate and mid-career levels,” the IGU report concludes. “It needs a dedicated effort to address technical and commercial skills gaps and to improve its image. Although gas is perceived as an important fuel in the global energy mix, young people appear unaware or unwilling to pursue careers in the industry.”

Part of this preparedness for more complex and challenging work environments is driven by increased rules and regulations, particularly in the environmental sector, that accompany the growth in domestic energy production and transportation in the United States. In that regard, established research/training organizations, such at GTI, Battelle and others, are zeroing in on issues like water management and keyhole technologies in the shale plays and pipeline sector, respectively.

Along with providing what it calls “objective, third-party” evaluations of individual shale gas drilling technologies, GTI has developed a workshop on collective “lessons and best practices” on water management for shale gas development. It includes methods for managing flow-back and produced water for shale gas based on the U.S. industry’s experience from recent years.

“Training and development have become key pieces,” Battelle’s Haggerty says. “Oil and gas exploration is taking on a new domain going deeper into the reservoirs in harsher environments. So not only are we looking at transitioning training in technology from one generation to the next, we have to determine how we can take the training we have and transition it into harsher environments.”

Training and development of crews, whether it be wellheads, pipelines or offshore rigs, is paramount for both processes and the more sophisticated equipment needed in the new environments, he says. “With this training comes better preparation and lowering of the risk in these harsher environments.”

The same water management issues that GTI and others are trying to address through training, Battelle has taken on through its technology development resources, fashioning one potential solution that is now commercially available in the Marcellus Shale play.

Battelle has spun off a company to deal with the issue – Winner Water Services, based in Pennsylvania. It recovers acid mine drainage water, working with recycling produced water. It has developed a produced water treatment technology and a process that can filter out all the sulfates in the contaminated water, allowing the water to be reused again. Battelle Technologies has even come up with a way to further purify the reused water so it can be a secondary source of drinking water, Haggerty says.

Similarly in the pipeline space, GTI has an industry consortium of manufacturers and utilities addressing keyhole technologies and the requisite training that accompanies those operating advancements. GTI has been a part of some significant developments including the establishment of keyhole standards, a keyhole pipeline inspection camera system, a tooling database, and instructional “how-to” videotapes.

“The consortium’s activities have included the creation of a technical reference guide to support the acceptance of coring and reinstatement procedures by local jurisdictions governing roadway repairs,” says GTI’s Rinholm, adding that GTI offers a scenario-based self-study online course. It puts students into what he called the position “to learn more about the technology, its benefits and costs.”

This approach is designed to help individual companies decide if keyhole technology – executing utility pipe operations through a small-diameter excavation, somewhat analogous to “minimally invasive surgery” in the health care world – is right for their company and specific applications, including the financial implications of using the technology. Like many of today’s technologies and the training of them, Rinholm sees keyhole as an area of evolution within the industry.

In the pipeline space there are many other areas in which training is attempting to keep up with technological advancements. Everything from welding to coatings and the composition of today’s large diameter pipe have advanced overall operations, according to Cliff Johnson, president of the Virginia-based Pipeline Research Council International, which has helped to foster some of the key research in the industry.

“The welding area has come around and embraced these upgrades pretty well,” Johnson says. More and better trained workers are something that needs to be addressed in the pipeline coating space, he says.

In the industry organizations and individual companies, there is institutional “DNA” that also needs to be factored into making ready the next generation of field workforces. It is not always articulated, but it is part of the fabric of a mature industry that is going through the growing pains of a rapid transformation.

“Statoil’s DNA refers to our commitment to have safe operations; we like to say ‘health-safety-and-the-environment, HSE,’ makes up our DNA,” a Statoil spokesperson says. “Keeping our employees, contractors, et al., safe is vital for Statoil, so we spend a lot of time talking about safety and how to conduct safe operations. We have developed training manuals, an HSE contractors’ safety manual, and we’ve had all our employees and contractors go through a training program.”

Future training needs will take a combination of more money, time and attention to quality from all of the industry’s players, according to GTI’s Rinholm. And maintaining communications in these dynamic times will also make a difference, he says. “Ready communications and information on best practices and emerging technologies and approaches is a key aspect and one of the industry’s biggest challenges.”

Richard Nemec
is West Coast correspondent for P&GJ and can be reached at: