MONTGOMERY, Pa. - On their first day working on a drilling rig last month, the eight students looked like the rank novices they were: They wore clean gloves and tidy safety vests, and many didn't know the difference between a roustabout and a tool pusher.
But three weeks later, the students at Penn College of Technology's course on drill-rig components had accumulated the grease-smudged experience that they hope will be their ticket to a job in the Marcellus Shale natural gas industry.
"I've got the lingo down now," said Claire Kerstetter, 22, a Clinton County resident who graduated this year with a communications degree from Clarion University of Pennsylvania but wanted to get some hands-on experience in the shale-gas industry. "I know there's a huge market for it."
The training that Penn College offers at its Energy Technology Education Center, south of Williamsport, is one component of a broad range of credit and noncredit programs that the college devised in response to the shale boom.
Critics say that the natural gas industry has not generated a flood of jobs and that many of the people it employs come from out of state.
The view from educators here is that demand for workers is robust.
"It's growing for us still," said Davie Jane Gilmour, the president of Penn College, which is affiliated with Pennsylvania State University.
"At the beginning, they were bringing in the workers from out of state," she said. "That's different now. We're talking about Pennsylvanians working in the natural gas industry."
The college, which has 6,000 students at its Williamsport campus, offers one-year certificates, two-year associate degrees, and four-year bachelor's degrees in a range of technical skills useful in the oil and gas industry. It recently added an associate degree in mechatronics, a relatively new discipline that is a combination of mechanics and electronics.
The school's welding program is in particularly high demand to prepare workers for the "midstream" operations that treat and deliver natural gas by pipeline, as well as workers to build five gas-fired power stations slated for the region.
"If you can weld and you're certified and do quality work, you'll stay busy for a long, long time," said Keith Rutherford, the business manager of pipefitters Local 520 in Harrisburg, which has 1,600 members in 23 counties.
Rutherford said union welders earn about $32 an hour, plus benefits. "These are good-paying middle-class jobs," he said.
Gilmour said Penn College officials saw the gas boom coming in 2008 and traveled to Fort Worth, Texas, to talk to educators about workforce development issues they encountered in an earlier shale bonanza.
Penn College and Westmoreland County Community College teamed up in 2010 to form ShaleNET, a consortium of community colleges that aimed to respond quickly to the industry's needs for entry-level workers. It received a $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor.
Last year, ShaleNET received a new $15 million federal grant to expand the network to include Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas, and Stark State College in Canton, Ohio. The broadened mission is to develop a "stackable" credential system that will allow nomadic oil and gas workers to continue their education wherever ShaleNET is offered.
Penn College works closely with the industry to make sure it is training workers for jobs that really exist, said David C. Pistner, the college's director of energy initiatives.
The three-week introductory course, with a tuition of $1,000, was developed to address the high attrition rate that drilling companies experienced in Pennsylvania. Local hires were unaccustomed to the industry's grueling schedule: 12-hour shifts, 14 days on, 14 days off. The best workers tended to be farmers, who were familiar with long hours of physical work outdoors.
"The turnover was just awful," Pistner said. "We didn't have a legacy industry here. It's a different mind-set. It's not for everybody."
The uncommitted tend not to progress. Students pay $220 for a drug test and a criminal background check, which would be required by the industry. Students who are repeatedly tardy for class are kicked out of the program.
At the college's drill-rig simulator - one of only three in the country - the students get a chance to handle the 31-foot lengths of drill pipe that are connected in a string to drive a drill bit more than a mile below the surface.
They are schooled in safety measures, spill prevention, and basic first aid and learn to recognize rig components and electrical systems.
"We don't want to overtrain," Pistner said. The instruction gives the students enough technical awareness that they can easily be trained by a company about their specific work practices.
Employers report an 81 percent retention rate of graduates after three quarters.
"As you get better at it, you'll get promoted and earn more income for your family," Rex Moore, the center's instructor, told the students during a break.
But Moore, an industry veteran, did not glamorize the life of a rig worker.
"Eighty percent of your time will be spent cleaning and scrubbing the rig," he said. "A clean rig is a safe rig."
BY THE NUMBERS
Approximate hourly wage for union welders.
Tuition for three-week intro course for those seeking jobs in the natural gas industry.
Retention rate of