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Press Photo by Katherine Lymn William Michelsen, left, and Logan Hippe, right, work on a simulated refinery component at a Bismarck State College lab April 10. The lab, which shows the inner workings of the machinery, is used in refinery training.

A different kind of pipeline: BSC supplying stream of educated energy workers

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Energy Dickinson, 58602
Dickinson North Dakota 1815 1st Street West 58602

They say anyone can find a job in the Bakken. But there are some jobs only trained workers can do.

Bismarck State College is helping to supply that, with degree programs and industry training to help staff western North Dakota’s booming oil industry.

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The National Energy Center of Excellence’s “non-credit” student population grew from 339 people in 2008 to 1,713 in 2013, said Retha Mattern, business and outreach coordinator for the NECE. Those numbers include employees sent by companies for a couple days of training or refresher courses.

One example of that will hit close to home in Dickinson is the eight men who completed their four-month refinery training at BSC earlier this month — they were hired by Dickinson Prairie Refining and then sent to school for training.

Energy instructor Paul Zimmerman said that was “good forethought” on the refinery’s part. With the huge demand and lower supply for energy jobs, the refinery couldn’t be certain it would find enough skilled workers for when it opens west of town late this year.

“When we started the whole hiring process, it wasn’t really clear whether we’d have success finding experienced folks or not,” said Dave Podratz, plant manager of the refinery, “so kind of as a hedge, we figured we’d better be prepared to train our own.”

Podratz said Dakota Prairie Refinery was prepared to send a couple more classes through the college if needed, but it found enough experienced workers for the rest of the positions.

At BSC, the eight trained employees were assessed before and after each topic — with the refinery seeing scores along the way — and those results showed the training was effective, Zimmerman said.

Job, then a degree

Oil-focused programs at BSC are growing fast and some have even been added since the boom — the petroleum production technology program, which covers oil extraction, is the fastest-growing program and was added in 2011, Mattern said. Degree programs, too, have grown in popularity, from 757 students taking energy classes in 2008 to 961 in 2013.

BSC’s online programs have grown, too.

At Richardton’s Red Trail Energy ethanol plant, for example, an estimated 90 percent of workers did some sort of training at BSC, often online, said Chris Kline, training and load out supervisor at the plant.

Kline said the plant will hire students as early as their first semester on campus at BSC, and they’ll start work while continuing their degree online.

Online programs have also been a good option for current industry workers looking to move up.

For example, the energy management bachelor’s program has exploded in popularity, said Alicia Uhde, training and program manager at the NECE.

Kline, too, studied at BSC, and sees the role it’s playing in the energy industry.

“They provide an education in a field that has a strong demand in North Dakota — I appreciate them orchestrating their curriculum around the needs of the state,” he said.

Like the Dakota Prairie Refinery workers, many of the Red Trail workers have gone through BSC’s process plant technology program.

Right place, right time

With a new shiny building that opened in fall 2008, the NECE was in the right place at the right time.

The building came before the boom truly struck western North Dakota, and was for expanded lab space that was already needed on campus.

“But then with that came the oil boom, so we were ready,” Uhde said.

Industry first reached out to the college about training employees.

At the NECE, machinery is in clear casing so students can see what’s going on.

“A lot of the stuff we run, we can actually see how it runs,” said Chauncey Ost, 25.

Dustin Slover said the paid training is a great opportunity.

“Obviously the boom isn’t going anywhere,” he said.

And, at the college, mistakes are a little more tolerable.

“They can’t just break stuff at the plant,” Uhde said.

The school involves industry to make sure it’s keeping up with the needs of the state.

Advisory boards for each energy program include industry representatives, which share needs and trends for their fields.

Industry is appreciative of having specialized training so close.

“It was just huge having that resource,” Podratz said. “There aren’t a lot of programs like that in the country and the fact that we had that resource here was really significant.”

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