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Energizing high school

Like Dickinson, the city of Laredo, Texas, sits on the fringes of a massive shale energy play, reaping both the rewards and the pitfalls that come with being located in an oil and gas hotbed.

Though the energy plays are different -- the Bakken in North Dakota and the Eagle Ford in south Texas -- young people from both areas of the country know that there is money to be made in the oil field after high school or college.

In a first for the Texas Education Agency, the Laredo Independent School District is set to launch an oil and gas program through its Sabas Perez Engineering Magnet School, which is located at Cigarroa High School.

Similar to Dickinson, only smaller -- Laredo is a city of more 200,000 along the Rio Grande -- the border city, and surrounding communities, are experiencing a big demand for oil and gas industry-related workers.

By putting students interested in learning more about oil field jobs on a specific path with college credit opportunities, LISD career and technical education director Cynthia Sanchez said the program is a way to offer kids a bridge to the types of careers that are in demand.

"We're trying to meet the extremely high demand for jobs in this area," Sanchez said. "In our engineering magnate school, the incoming engineering kids, which is about 150 students, will be taught by a civil engineer and integrated into their courses will be pneumatics, hydraulics and electricity, which are the basics for most of the drilling that's done."

Sanchez said that, if students are interested in further course work in those areas, they can move into the oil and gas program.

"In year two, we are striving right now to provide an innovative course, through the state of Texas, of petroleum geology," Sanchez said. "In year three, through our partnership with Laredo Community College, we will offer students the opportunity to pursue a certificate in an oil and gas specialization. During their junior and senior years, the kids would start taking the courses toward that certificate and, by the time they graduate, they will have finished 27 of the 30 required hours for the certificate."

If LISD students in the new oil and gas program wish to pursue a four-year petroleum-based degree, Sanchez said that could be done through the program as well with the offering of specific pre-engineering college courses.

Though Laredo is a different animal than Dickinson or Williston, could a high school-level oil and gas program ever be implemented into curriculums in North Dakota?

"There's nothing like that that I'm aware of in North Dakota, but it sounds very cool," said Dickinson High School Assistant Principal Calvin Dean. "We have our vocational programs that have always been there, like welding, which kind of works in that area, but we don't offer anything specific to oil and gas here in Dickinson at our level."

Dean said that students talk a lot about the different types of opportunities available in the Bakken at DHS.

"They see that there is a tremendous amount of opportunity there," Dean said. "A lot of them are talking about getting some short-term training, possibly at a junior college level, or just going straight into the workforce right out of high school. As an educator, I think we tend to take the safe route. We see the great opportunities available, but we realize that those opportunities may not be long term, so I think we try to promote that they take care of their education also because they may need to come back and rely upon that someday."

Kari Knudson, vice president of Bismarck State College's National Energy Center of Excellence, said demand is very high for her school's portfolio of energy-specific programs, including BSC's petroleum production technology and process plant (PTEC) degree paths.

"Our programs are very popular right now," Knudson said. "We've definitely seen an increase in the number of jobs available in western North Dakota that would be tied to our process plant program and our petroleum program. The jobs that our students are able to compete for are good, long term jobs. For example, you can go into drilling, but there are positions in that area that don't require education. For our students, they're able to put themselves in a position to get a higher-paying job and have a longer career, not just a job."

Sanchez said that, whenever a person can get "at least a little more" education, their prospects are likely to improve in the job market.

"There are a lot of kids right out of high school who can get into (oil field) jobs and can make $80,000 per year," Sanchez said. "But anybody who comes in with more education ends up getting the better jobs. We always want to encourage kids to go on and further their education, but this is where the jobs are right now and we want to prepare students as best we can for what they want to go into."

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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