New Mexico Lawmakers Look To Community Colleges To Train Workers During Oil Boom
June 8, 2018
Industrial workforce needs are becoming a main focus of southeast New Mexican community colleges, as a recent spike in regional extraction developments caused an influx of workers in need of training.
John Gratton, president of New Mexico State University Carlsbad spoke before the Legislative Finance Committee during a Wednesday meeting at NMSU-C that his school works closely with industry leaders to identify programs to meet a company’s specifications.
He said the school is looking to offer a 10-week safety training course for oilfield workers.
Gratton said safety is paramount to maintaining the industry’s momentum in Permian Basin, and NMSU-C is here to help.
“You’d be shocked to see some of the injuries. It’s horrible. Safety in that industry is essential,” he said. “When the industry comes to us, we say yes.”
The administration has met with oil-producing companies such as Chevron, Concho and XTO, Gratton said, to discuss a potential gas-compression program for workers in the natural gas industry.
The school is also renovating its welding area, he said, planning to provide more courses and training in that field.
“A lot of it depends on what are they asking for,” Gratton said. “We do a cost analysis and look at the long-range impact. I’ve got to look at a lot of different variables before I make that decision.”
NMSU-C also provides training for workers at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, Gratton said offering leadership courses for employees hoping to move up in the company.
The school is also looking into a “dealing with difficult employees” course, he said, which would address workforce harassment and work ethic.
“We have a fluctuating economy. The oil and gas industry booms and busts,” Gratton said “The oil and gas industry is now coming to us and saying ‘We want you to help us’ with programs.”
At New Mexico Junior College in Hobbs, President Kelvin Sharp said companies can even provide instructors or class materials for training programs offered at the school.
He said the college is developing a mock well site, to provide hands-on training for workers.
“It depends on what the request is. If we can get a short course, and the industry can provide the instructor, those are programs we can get going very quickly,” he said.
Sharp lobbied lawmakers to put more funding into workforce training, a service he said was essential to the industry that supports much of the state’s economy.
“Put more money in the workforce training,” Sharp said. “That would really help us respond to the needs of the industry.”
Chair of the committee and State Rep. Patricia Lundstrom said higher education institutions often struggle to create programs that directly correlate to industry demands.
“In these rural industries, with a volatile industry, it seems to me higher (education) is a little slower when it comes to figuring this out,” she said. “We need to look into how we can better retool the workforce training.”
Lundstrom said the schools must put more emphasis on outreach with the industry, to anticipate needs and develop programs before industry leaders make requests.
“I was a little concerned when I heard we are waiting to hear what they need,” she said. “We worry sometimes that we’re training people for jobs that won’t exist in five years. It’s something we worry about statewide.”
State Rep. Jim Townsend said he expects the oil and gas industry to continue to grow in southeast New Mexico, and that means more workers will need more training.
“I think your efforts for workforce training is commendable and a real service to the state,” he said to Gratton and Sharp. “The boom has got some legs to it. You’re seeing sizeable investments. You’re going to keep seeing that. There’s some real issues that I think you could address.”
Retention during the boom cycle
A robust training program is impossible to attend without a place to live, Gratton said, and Carlsbad is facing a housing shortage that he said the school must address.
NMSU-C could develop apartments for some students, he said, initially housing up 100 students.
“Housing is a major problem here. We have students who say ‘We would come to your program, if there was a place to stay,’” he said. “And there isn’t. Students cannot find a place to live here.”
At New Mexico Junior College, student housing is offered at a capacity of about 340.
But worse than low housing, Sharp said enrollment and retention rates decline when the industry booms, and prices go up. That means more jobs, and more employers looking for workers.
Sharp said such a shift can occur as quickly as within two to four months.
Employers can interrupt a student’s program, he said, opting to hire an employee with just one semester of study.
“Our enrollment is conversely related to the price of oil. When prices are down, we see higher enrollment,” Sharp said. “When prices go up, more people are entering the workforce.”
He said such industry shifts can also impact the school’s finances, as New Mexico Junior College went from a $5 million surplus in 2013 and 2014, during the last oil boom, to losing $2 million in fiscal year 2016.
That not only cuts the resources available at the school, but can stymie state funding, Sharp said.
“In those drops it impacts us twice. Not only do we lose local resources, but if the state takes a hit, we lose those appropriations,” he said. “Being in the oil patch is courageous because you never know when it’s going to go up or down.”
And when job opportunities grow, retention rates can sag, Gratton said.
It’s the reality, he said, of higher education in a boom town.
“If you can pass a drug test and have a pulse, you’ve got a job in Carlsbad,” Gratton said. “Everyone is looking to hire. I think that has impacted our retention rate.”
Source: Santa Fe New Mexican