Working in the oil and gas industry is dangerous. As Inside Energy reported in its “Dark Side Of The Boom” series, these jobs are actually six times more dangerous than the average American job. But a new Department of Labor-sponsored training program could help fight that trend.
The Wind River Job Corps Center, set to open in Riverton, Wyoming in the Fall of 2015, will be the first out of the 125 existing job corps centers around the country to focus specifically on energy, with a special emphasis on oil and gas production. Students as young as 16 will learn about oil and gas production on the same heavy equipment used in the field. That machinery, donated by industry partners, will occupy a 100 by 200 square foot oil and gas field mock up, situated at the center of campus. The training center will serve around 550 low-income students per year, all of whom will attend for free.
Wyoming’s oil and gas industry, the local community and lawmakers, like Sentor Mike
Enzi all seem to agree that the Wind River Job Corps Center is a great thing. But it’s existence is largely due to the oil and gas industry’s dismal safety record.
Former Riverton mayor John Vincent, who took office in 2003, used to be a lawyer for the energy industry. But at the height of Wyoming’s oil and gas boom, in the mid 2000s, worker fatalities in the state peaked.
“Virtually everybody in Riverton either had a family member or close friend who had either been seriously injured or they had had somebody killed in an oil field accident,” Vincent said.
And then Vincent’s neighbors lost their son in an accident on a rig. He told me that he had trouble looking them in the face.
“That was a breaking point for me I decided I had to do something about it.”
So through his law practice, Vincent started representing injured workers. And, as mayor of Riverton, he signed the Department of Labor application for a training center that would focus on energy. With the Wind River Job Corps Center now close to completion, Vincent believes the program will better prepare young people for the harsh realities of oil and gas work.
“These kids will get to see real equipment, and they’re gonna have an idea of what it looks like and sounds like,” he said. “They don’t call it easy neckin’, they call it rough neckin’, you know.”
And Wyoming’s energy industry is supportive as well. Four “industry partners” will donate equipment and have helped write curriculum: Encana Oil & Gas, ConocoPhillips, Marathon Energy, and Devon Energy. But I wanted to know how their own safety training programs compare with what they’ve designed for the Wind River Job Corps Center. John Schmidt, an operations supervisor at Encana, walked me through the process a recruit would go through at his company:
“He will go into our Denver office and he will go through all of the upfront safety trainings. We send him to defensive driving school. When we get him back after that week, we put him with one of our seasoned employees and we’re very very careful about what we let him do. We walk him through all the equipment one piece at a time. And we’ll just work with him as needed. It is very worker dependent. The faster he learns, the faster he’ll be out on his own. But we never ever let an employee go out before we’re absolutely sure that he’s safe and well trained.”
In comparison to Encana’s one week program, students will stay at Wyoming’s Job Corps for an average of eight months, studying not only oil and gas production but also construction, welding, diesel mechanics, accounting, and office administration.
For some perspective on how much companies actually care about safety, I met with a Wyoming industry veteran named John at his second home in a golf community outside of Phoenix, Arizona. After 40 years in the business, John fell into an open hole on a rig in Wyoming last year and broke his leg and ankle. He asked we only use his first name because he’s suing the oil and gas equipment contractor.
“A lot of what’s going on with training, in my opinion, is just to appease insurance companies. It is to put a check by something that you’ve done for a person rather than to make sure that you’re really effectively training them in my opinion. I saw so many of those young guys come out to the rig that weren’t prepared to go to work on a drilling rig.”
As we sit on John’s porch, overlooking a manicured putting green, we are a world away from the scrubby, wind blown, golf course that will be home to Riverton’s Job Corps Center. But former mayor John Vincent is this John’s lawyer and got him interested in donating equipment or maybe even teaching at the center.
“I had a lot of really good people that paid attention to me and helped teach me things, and the proper way of doing things. And I’d like to pay that forward.”