Workers Leave the Oil Fields for the Classroom

By Sarah Snyder
NewsWest 9

The dropping gas prices don't spell success for many Basin companies, but for local colleges it's a plus. 

As folks find less work out in the field they're finding more time to hit the books. Odessa College, UT Permian Basin, and Midland College all say their enrollment numbers are up.

The oil and gas slowdown has given workers more time to learn new skills and students say it's paying off big time.

"It's been a dramatic drop from $140 a barrel in June down to the low 40's right now," Hoxie Smith, Director Petroleum Professional Development Center at Midland College, said. "People are cutting back."

Those cut-backs have oil industry professionals headed back into the classroom.

"Knowledge is power," Continuing Education Student David Sheba, said.

David Sheba got a Masters in Geology from UT El Paso and came to work for Chevron in Midland. Now, he's one of the students taking continuing education courses at Midland College.

"It's important to get more education during this period because whatever you have, you want to make sure you're making constructive decisions in getting the oil in the tank, because if you drill a well, it costs millions of dollars," he said.

Last year, the College saw record numbers of students, and now with the slowdown they're seeing that number rise even higher.

"I was encouraged to see the amount of people coming in," Smith said. "We're not only up in number in enrollment, the people coming in, but in the contact hours - the amount of time they're spending here."

Those continuing education students at Midland College are serious about their studies. They're staying in classes 66% longer than they were this time last year.

"I think people are coming in and spending a little more time even though work's slowing down," Smith said. "They see it as a time they can get a little bit more education."

"It's very imperative to get a detailed understanding of what you're doing, especially when we have gas prices going down," Sheba said. "So you can be sure of what you're doing when you get out to the tank, and making a good profit for the company."

Younger workers went straight into the business because of the high demand over the summer, but now they're back in the classroom learning new skills.

"Those new people they hired, they don't have the training programs internally," Smith said. "So they're looking to the community colleges to educate their new hires."

"You want to insure that you're making the best decision for your company, not irrational decisions and put the company in jeopardy," Sheba said.

The same story is true at Odessa College. They've had so many new students that the welding program has doubled this year. And over at UT Permian Basin, they've seen a surge in the need for energy-related courses. In January, they'll present a request for the Petroleum Engineering program.