2010-03-25 / Local & State

In North-Central Pa., Hope For More Jobs From Gas

By Genaro C. Armas ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

COUDERSPORT, Pa. (AP) – The economy in rural north-central Pennsylvania has ebbed and flowed with the region’s natural resources.

Lumber once made people rich in a part of the state so desolate it’s been nicknamed “God’s Country.’’ A little further west, the oil boom that began more than 150 years ago brought some prosperity.

Now a rush on natural gas stored deep underground in the sprawling Marcellus Shale formation has brought hope of more jobs that could help the economy in a region with some of the highest unemployment rates in Pennsylvania.

“We live in a pretty economically depressed area, and this is the one ray of hope that has come about here the last few years,’’ said Brock Benson, the principal at Johnsonburg High School, after bringing a group of students to a natural gas industry job fair in Coudersport.

Organizers billed the March 17 fair, part of a larger two-day program on the natural-gas rich shale, as the first event of its kind in the state focusing just on industry jobs.

In this town of just over 2,000 people, the largest space to accommodate the expected 1,200 high school students and job seekers was a church building and banquet space. Ten minutes after opening to the public, potential applicants stood nearly shoulder-to-shoulder, slowly winding through a main aisle surrounded by prospective employers.

“Terrible. There is no work right now. The last year-and-ahalf, it’s died,’’ said construction worker Stephen Hurd, 42, of Harrison Valley, in describing the job situation.

Unemployed for 18 months, he’s willing to make the transition to a job on a rig.

A report last year from the Marcellus Shale Education & Training Center, at the Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, estimated that the number of full-time natural gasrelated jobs in north-central Pennsylvania could more than double to between 3,200 and 5,400 positions by 2013, depending on the success of wells.

A study this month from the state’s Center for Workforce Information & Analysis estimated Marcellus Shale jobs could grow 55 percent from 2006 to 2016 to more than 12,400 positions statewide. Marcellus jobs in north-central Pennsylvania could rise by 62 percent to 2,700.

Those are dramatic figures in a region where unemployment often hovers above the state average of 8.8 percent. The area has especially been hit hard in recent years by cuts in manufacturing and businesses related to the automobile industry.

Unemployment in Potter County, where Coudersport is located, was 10.8 percent in January, according to seasonally adjusted figures from the state. Among neighboring counties, the unemployment rate was 10.7 percent in McKean, 8.8 percent in Tioga and 9.9 percent in Lycoming.

Cameron County, the state’s smallest county by population, has the worst unemployment – 16.9 percent of its civilian labor force of 2,300 is out of work.

Gas companies drilling wells bring in many experienced workers from out-of-state to staff Pennsylvania rigs. The influx has brought challenges to small towns once reserved for bigger communities, like rising rents and a lack of affordable housing.

Helene Nawrocki, the executive director of the Potter County Education Council who helped organize the Natural Gas Expo in Coudersport, would rather more of those jobs go to in-state residents.

What in-state applicants may be lacking, though, are the proper skills. Area high schools, colleges and technical schools have started discussing how to offer training.

Penn College’s Marcellus Shale Education & Training Center this year began offering training classes that included on-site visits to wells. One of its first graduates was Aaron Rush, 24, of Morris, who previously worked in construction and was most recently a branch manager for a financial services agency.

He isn’t fazed by the potential 24-hours-a-day grind of rig work, quite different from the 9-to-5 schedule in the financial field. Rush and others talked about the potential to move up in the new field to positions with less hectic hours.

“With the financial agency, with the economy and everything, it just kind of tanked,’’ Rush said after his graduation ceremony last month in Wellsboro. “I’m an opportunist. I’m looking for something where the opportunity is there, that’s going to be big in this area.’’

Educators also see the Marcellus rush as a possible avenue to reverse “brain drain’’ and keep local high school students home.

Carter Nolan, a 17-year-old junior at Oswayo Valley High School, helped pump drill wells last summer. He once thought he would need to leave the area to find a career, but now wants to stay local and get more schooling to learn how to operate heavy machinery or work on the gas pipeline.

“Jobs are very difficult to find,’’ said Gary Elder, Nolan’s principal at the school in Shinglehouse. “When you walk through a hall and people start saying, ‘Don’t you have anybody to hire? We’ll start them at $25 (an hour) or more,’ our kids aren’t used to hearing that. They’re used to scraping to find a minimum wage job.’’

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