Help Wanted? OSU Campus Develops Pipeline Integrity Degree, Industry Partnerships

February 2014, Vol. 241 No. 2

Erin Nelsen Parekh, Associate Editor

Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology (OSUIT) has introduced a degree program in pipeline integrity, developed in cooperation with a committee of industry advisors that includes transmission pipeline companies, utilities, manufacturers and service providers. OSUIT will grant an associate of applied science degree to graduates, with hopes to add a bachelor’s degree program in the near future.

The program launches into an environment where energy companies are increasingly concerned about who they will hire as baby boomer experts reach retirement age just as the industry projects a long cycle of expansion.

“The skills gap exists primarily due to two major factors: exponential growth within the industry and an aging workforce. It’s a matter of where demand for oil and gas technicians far exceeds the supply or availability of such personnel,” said Ken Eaton, Manager of Operations Training for DCP Midstream and one of the members of the OSUIT program’s advisory committee.

The gap hits some segments of the workforce harder than others. A 2009 study done for the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA) called out pipeline integrity personnel as among the greatest risks for skills shortage, since the job requires extensive industry-specific training and can’t be hired away from manufacturing or other related fields. (See “Critical Skill Forecast for the Natural Gas Transmission Industry,” INGAA Foundation report F-2009-02.)

The report noted two ameliorating factors at the time of its publication: a shrinking economy that would temporarily defer retirements, and the expected continued decline of the manufacturing industry in the United States, which would ease the longstanding competition with that sector for skilled workers. With natural gas boosters now cheering a return to onshore manufacturing and stock markets booming, both of these factors may now be negated.

A Hard Role To Fill
Educating more young people to meet the demand for pipeline integrity and related skills — or even to take the first steps on the career path — has proved tricky. Recruitment is one difficulty, said Brian Putnam, midstream director for Chesapeake Energy and chair of the industry advisory committee.

“The recruiting for our non-engineering [roles], particularly field-oriented pipeline integrity staff, is extremely challenging.”

Part of the problem was that there’s little awareness of the need. “Although the industry is enjoying a huge shale boom, for potential students who don’t have any connection to the oil and gas industry, pipeline integrity management is a fairly obscure thing.”

OSUIT has at present 15 declared majors in the program, nine taking classes already. The low numbers don’t worry Mike Pierce, OSUIT’s assistant division chair for engineering technologies, however.

“The first cohort is always tough to get going because it’s new, it’s hard to get the word out , and in this case nobody knows what pipeline integrity is, so we’re trying to educate the student market as well,” said Pierce.

Even for an interested and informed newcomer, the path toward a stable career is unclear. Many in the past have learned on the job over a series of years and refined their skills as technology and standards change rather than arriving on the jobsite with working knowledge.

The OSUIT program’s first faculty member is Joe Bartlett, a 25-year veteran of the pipeline industry who trained employees from all kinds of backgrounds on equipment, processes, and “how to be around pipelines” for careers in services, smart pigging, caliper work and more.

OSUIT faculty member Joe Bartlett instructs students in the Pipeline Integrity Technology program on how to use a line locator. Photo by Luke Braswell.

“All the time I was extremely frustrated because I was finding people who had no knowledge of pipelines and no skill sets. They may have had a degree or they may be a bus driver. I’ve watched the industry struggle with hiring people for years, and I saw this opportunity to make an impact with the industry as well as with the individual students,” Bartlett said.

Even graduates coming in from established corrosion programs can require significant investment, Putnam said. “Many of them come in as entry-level technicians, without any real working knowledge of the industry, and we have to conduct all in-house training. It takes quite a bit of time and effort to get just the basic building blocks.”
Meanwhile, companies are seeking midlevel technically trained employees in a variety of disciplines.

“DCP Midstream and the industry as a whole have a vital need for technicians equipped with the skill set to operate, maintain, repair and install new equipment associated with our pipeline operations as well as our processing facilities,” said Eaton. He named pipeline integrity technicians, corrosion and cathodic protection technicians, natural gas compression technicians, instrumentation and electrical technicians and plant operators as particularly needed.

The anticipation of this need was what brought companies to OSUIT to request the development of the pipeline integrity program in 2010. “With rigorous federal requirements, a retiring workforce, 2.5 million miles of pipeline in the country and 60% of it over 40 years old, companies put all those contributing factors together and were beginning to recognize that they were going to need a tremendous workforce in order to combat all of those issues,” said Pierce.

Developing A Broad Program
Instead of developing a narrow career-training program, OSUIT envisions giving students an overview of the whole pipeline integrity discipline. “The industry is poised for so much growth over the next decade that we wanted to ensure students were exposed to a diverse course load to provide the best possible chance for a variety of positions as they get out into the workforce,” said Putnam.

“There are several corrosion programs across the country, but the differentiator for us is that we’re getting into the actual pipeline integrity portion of it much deeper, more into nondestructive testing, cathodic protection and additional areas,” said Dr. Greg Mosier, vice president of academic affairs for OSUIT.

“Industry is still trying to put a definition and actually a title to the position. Many people are calling it a pipeline integrity specialist, which is above a corrosion specialist. It’s changing, it’s still evolving, because it’s in its infancy.”

Companies have their own training programs, of course, but OSUIT officials estimate that taking an inexperienced hire to the necessary level of competence in pipeline integrity would cost a company $60,000-80,000, and there is no guarantee of a return on the investment if the newly trained professional finds a better offer elsewhere. The OSUIT program costs about $30,000 per student for a two-year degree, including tuition, room, board and supplies.

But to focus on savings alone would sell the program short from an employer’s perspective, according to Putnam. “The cost is not necessarily the biggest driver. The time and the resources required for, say, an operator to sit a young recruit down and expose them to so many topics — I think logistically it’s impossible to get that broad-based overview without years. It’s not a dollar amount. It’s getting the right resources in an organization to sit down, develop and implement in-house training.”

Then there’s the benefit students gain from understanding the industry before officially entering it. The number one question Putnam has to answer for new recruits is what form their career path will take, he said, and the myriad opportunities and lack of a defined way forward can intimidate them. “Sometimes we end up losing recruits because they went into their first role, they didn’t really understand the industry very well, and we lost them before we could expose them to enough to really get them excited about it.

“We’re really hoping that with [the pipeline integrity program] background, on day one the positions that they look to fill will be something that they’re already interested in, they understand how the pieces fit together, and it’ll take the burden off the companies to do 100% of the orientation and career development training,” Putnam said.

Learning, In School And Out
For the OSUIT program, people from many companies are pitching in. The committee of industry advisors includes representatives from Atmos Energy, CenterPoint Energy, Chesapeake Energy, Chevron, Conoco Phillips, DCP Midstream, Devon Energy, Energy Transfer, Koch Pipeline, Magellan, MESA Corrosion, OGE Energy, ONEOK, Phillips Petroleum, Quanta Pipeline, T.D. Williamson and the Gas Processors Association. It assists with curriculum development, donations of equipment and supplies, financial support and staffing faculty when possible, but also more involved tasks like helping to arrange guest speakers, setting up workshops, recruiting prospective students and hosting field trips.

Field trips for the students have been scheduled to Phillips 66’s tank farm and to nondestructive testing service provider SGS. Visits to Williams and Magellan are in the works. T.D. Williamson has offered its Tulsa training facility to let students operate its test loop to run and track pigs, locate pipelines and practice leak detection.

OSUIT has a history of public-private partnerships with industry — over 200 to date. “That’s how we can afford to do the types of training that we have,” said Mosier. The university’s compression technician program launched in 1999, granting associates’ degrees in applied science for natural gas compression. After a recent expansion that program will be able to accommodate 160 students this spring.

Faculty hope the pipeline integrity program will follow that trajectory, but at a faster pace due to current industry demand.

“We’re still looking for support to get the program fully off the ground and for long-term support in the form of scholarships for the students or materials,” said Mosier. “We want to operate without raising the cost on the students.” He estimated total setup costs for the program at $1.5 million, including equipment, pipe, material and supplies.

Eaton, an Oklahoma State graduate himself, cited 12 years of cooperative efforts between DCP Midstream and OSUIT, and lauded its special philosophy. “What sets OSUIT apart from other schools is its ‘applied technology’ approach,” he explained. “The students do not receive ‘ivory tower’ type classroom instruction. It’s real life based on input from industry representatives. The instructors are from the industry — they know what they are talking about.”

Hands-on methods are a big selling point, but even more convincing to Eaton is the university’s emphasis on work experience. “Internships are a program requirement in order to graduate. The internships provide real life work experiences for the student and the ability to apply what they have learned in school. The internships also provide the opportunity for the student to check out the company as well as the company to review the student for employment opportunities upon graduation.”

That experience can lead to a smoother transition into full-time work. “Our students typically are able to hit the ground running when they graduate, they’re able to actually go to work and be productive from the beginning,” Pierce said.

Both faculty and advisors see plenty of opportunities ahead for students just getting into the industry. Eaton’s own experience in the business has made him eager to help others join. “It’s a growing and stable industry that is noted for paying well with great benefits, but just as important is the relationship developed. We’re one big family.”

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