The RAND Corporation has released two energy-sector workforce development studies conducted on behalf of the Energy Department’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL). The two studies, one targeting the state of West Virginia and one the southwestern Pennsylvania (SWPA) region, provided recommendations that support the Energy Department’s strategic objective to increase energy productivity and ensure safe and responsible development of domestic energy resources.

The West Virginia study evaluated how the state’s high schools and the West Virginia Community and Technical College System (WVCTCS) are preparing workers for the shale gas industry. The second study focused on the 32 contiguous counties in Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, and Ohio that take part in the Power of 32 regional visioning project and collaborative initiative. The SWPA study focused on ways to recognize the direction of technological innovations and align energy-sector workforce training to encourage these trends.

As the nation transitions to cleaner-burning fossil fuels and renewable energy sources, having qualified candidates to fill positions in modern energy development is imperative. Thanks to the diverse, abundant energy resources available in West Virginia and the SWPA region, the area has become an established energy hub and is experiencing an increase in energy jobs that require trained personnel. Matching industry- and innovation-appropriate educational opportunities to the existing workforce will help provide efficient energy production for the nation while providing an economic boon in these energy-producing regions from newly created jobs.

The complementary studies recognized challenges that face workers, educators, and industry in the energy sector and suggested ways to overcome these obstacles. For West Virginia, the study found that workers often graduate from high school without the knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary for employment and then find it difficult to get on a path to achieve them. To solve these problems, RAND suggested the following actions and practices:

  • Developing stronger partnerships among industry employers and community college programs.
  • Including bridge or transitional services with high school or younger students.
  • Offering comprehensive training that includes internships, on-the-job training, and case management while being aware of obstacles to implementation.
  • Improving talent readiness through career and technical education programs.
  • Recruiting or marketing WVCTCS degree programs and linking to a possible career.
  • Developing programs through cross-college collaboration.
  • Leveraging connections and relationships already in place through workforce development training.
  • Designing a WVCTCS curriculum that includes behavioral competencies and computer skills through industry–college collaborations.
  • Implementing policies to encourage recruitment and retention of instructors while considering geography and college catchment areas.

The SWPA study looked at innovation and technology trends in the region to predict the future direction of energy-sector employment and determine the best ways to align present and future workforce development programs. RAND looked at the best practices of educational and training programs in other sectors that have accomplished a successful response to innovation and then compared these practices to programs in the SWPA region. Based on this comparison, RAND made the following recommendations:

  • Developing sustained and continuous partnerships between industry leaders and training providers.
  • Developing education and training programs that integrate technical, occupation-specific training along with workplace readiness and other soft skills.
  • Encouraging recruitment and retention of quality instructors by instituting continuous professional development and developing agreements that allow energy-sector employees to teach these programs.
  • Incorporating mechanisms in the programs to continuously ensure quality by external oversight, internal assessment, and ongoing monitoring.
  • Documenting progress on whether training and employment goals are being met.

The Office of Fossil Energy has already implemented several workforce development initiatives, including the RAND studies, to meet the needs of the energy industry in West Virginia and the SWPA region. NETL’s Advanced Energy Simulator, as well as its participation in ShaleNET, are among those efforts.

  • NETL’s Advanced Energy Simulator is a research component housed at NETL that focuses on safe, reliable, and efficient energy plant operations and control. A training and education center at West Virginia University provides chemical engineering education on plant operations, control, and sensor networks; industry workforce training; a dynamic simulator for control room operations; and a 3D virtual plant for simulating advanced gasification and natural gas–fired power generation systems. The simulator was developed by NETL in collaboration with industry, academic, and software partners.
  • ShaleNET is a consortium of community colleges led by Westmoreland County Community College that helps build careers in the oil and natural gas industry. NETL assists with curriculum development and provides speakers on topics of interest to ShaleNET.

The results of the new studies, along with other programs currently underway by NETL, continue to build solid foundation to develop the region’s talent into an educated workforce that will be prepared for the challenges and novel technologies of tomorrow’s energy industry.

RAND’s West Virginia study can be found here. The southwestern Pennsylvania study can be accessed here.