Back in 2012, with unemployment still hovering above eight percent, you had a good chance of getting a well-paying job if you were looking for work around Western Pennsylvania’s Marcellus and Utica shale formations. It was a situation far different from the one facing most Americans around the U.S.
Although the country as a whole had lost 3.7 million jobs since 2007, over in Pennsylvania’s shale region, the state’s oil and gas industry had experienced a 259 percent growth in jobs over the same period. In North Dakota, whose own shale deposits have been helping fuel the country’s oil and gas boom, the sector was in the midst of an employment boom. As America struggled to jumpstart its broader struggling economy, the natural gas locked in the rocks under these rural states offered high-paying jobs that paid thousands of dollars per year above the national average.
Job opportunities like these are growing across rural America, and they are helping to bring the country’s economy roaring back to life in the areas that need it most. But securing one of the technical positions these regional employers need requires fundamental science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills.
It’s a big job for the local educators, parents and students to become competitive for the new work in their communities. Nonprofit organizations have gotten involved to address the challenge, as have companies that require skilled workers to produce the goods they offer. Together, they are teaming up to elevate the level of STEM training from elementary school up through technical colleges.
“Most of the job opportunities in energy and related manufacturing require technical skills, even in traditionally blue collar positions,” says Trip Oliver, a manager at the Chevron business unit at the heart of the Marcellus shale play. The company partnered with a consortium of regional economic development organizations, including the Benedum Foundation, to form the Appalachia Partnership Initiative with a mission to get rural students in the region STEM-ready. “If you don’t have a foundation in STEM education, then you won’t be competitive for these jobs. (...) These aren’t your grandfather’s blue-collar jobs.”
Many organizations are trying to tackle the education challenge at the source: in schools.
The Benedum Foundation works alongside educators, parents and private-sector stakeholders like Chevron in the rural heart of the new energy economy that sits above the Marcellus shale formation. The foundation, which is based in Pittsburgh, collaborates with area schools, universities and employers to boost STEM’s role in the curriculum and students’ technical skills.
“Rural communities are at a tremendous disadvantage,” said James Denova, vice president of Benedum. “They can’t attract the qualified teachers for more advanced STEM courses.”
They’re finding that regardless of where students are raised, be it in the country or a suburb, they’re naturally hungry for knowledge and technologies that are put in their hands. “Kids are natural scientists. They’re curious; they ask questions,” says Jonathan Doctorick, a rural educator in the Appalachia. “They drop things, they break things, they wonder why that happened and how that happened, and it’s an opportunity for you to teach them.”
Doctorick works with the Science on the Road program run by Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Science Center, an organization that pushes STEM learning into more-remote areas. The center’s effort brings a science-focused curriculum and hands-on activities to prekindergarten through eight-grade students throughout the region. Science on the Road’s goal, he says, is inspiring students to embrace their natural inquisitiveness and stay interested in science throughout their educational careers.
But to produce a STEM-ready workforce, these organizations must go beyond education to address people’s preconceived notions about who can get high-paying STEM jobs. The Carnegie Science Center just released a report on STEM education’s role in improving the workforce in Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio. Researchers found that significant work needs to be done to get parents to push their children to stick with STEM classes.
The report concluded that students are better equipped with STEM skills by engaging them in science and math projects that are collaborative, hands-on and based on solving problems. “STEM education does not just inspire our future scientists but also elevates the prospects of all rural students, including those at small schools with limited resources—who, without STEM education, have fewer options,” Carnegie Science Center executives wrote.
Those fighting to improve workforce readiness in rural areas like those above the Marcellus Shale formation know they have much work to do. Over the course of a century, workers there have known the ups and downs of blue-collar labor.
“Look, people around here don’t want to send their kids into coal mines anymore,” Benedum’s Denova said. “Then along comes this opportunity in manufacturing and other industries that are now very sophisticated keyboard-driven types of occupations. We need to get kids prepared for this kind of work.”