WHEELING - Anyone looking for a welding job in the Upper Ohio Valley should be able to find work as long as they have the proper training because thousands of miles of natural gas pipelines are needed to move Marcellus and Utica shale natural gas.
As the natural gas industry continues to boom across eastern Ohio and West Virginia's Northern Panhandle, there are both transmission pipelines and gathering pipelines that need to be installed. Transmission lines are ones that lead to, for example, an interstate pipeline to carry gas across the nation. Gathering lines carry the gas from the wellheads to a processing plant or compressor station, from which it then will go to the transmission lines.
According to Robert Guentter Jr., director of Workforce and Economic Development at Belmont College in St. Clairsville, there will be about 14,000 miles of pipelines built across Ohio in order to move all of the natural gas, oil and natural gas liquids such as ethane, propane and butane produced in the Utica Shale.
Photo by Casey Junkins
Brian Groux, a welder at Arrowsmith Fabrication in South Wheeling, welds inside the shop on Wood Street. The truck is part of Arrowsmith’s business that allows workers to respond to breakdowns at natural gas industry sites
Dirk DeCoy, director of Industrial Trades and Contract Training at the college, said the chance to earn tens of thousands of dollars per year by welding pipelines has increased enrollment in the school's welding program.
"Five years ago, we had seven students. This year, we have 60," he said in emphasizing the impact the natural gas business is having on the college's enrollment.
"Any company that needs to train their workers in pipeline welding can send their people here - or, we can go to them," DeCoy said.
The thousands of miles of natural gas pipelines in our area has demand for pipefitters and pipeline inspectors at a premium
The welding program at Belmont College, for example, went from seven students just five years ago to 60 this year
Small manufacturing shops such as Arrowsmith Fabrication in Wheeling have opened and are benefiting from the boom in new work
Paul Huffman, welding instructor at the college, said there is a significant difference between what he termed "pipe welding" and "pipeline welding." Just because one is trained to weld pipe together does not mean he or she is qualified to work on a pipeline, he said.
"There are major differences between the two. The muscle memory and coordination you need are different. Plus, you are just dealing with bigger stuff when you are welding these pipelines," he said.
In South Wheeling, Michael Siebieda and Brett Francis are now employing welders working in the natural gas industry at their Arrowsmith Fabrication business.
"It is good to see that Belmont College and West Virginia Northern Community College are working to help people develop this skill set," Siebieda said. "Downhill pipeline welders are hard to find."
The Wheeling residents were so confident in the their ability to perform the specialized work associated with the natural gas industry that they quit secure jobs to start their own business in South Wheeling. One year later, Francis and Siebieda believe they made the right choice.
"There is so much work out there. We feel good about the prospect of being able to get people good jobs working for these gas companies," Francis said.
"You have to look at this over the long-term, over the next five years or so. The future opportunities for growth look unbelievable," Siebieda added.
The Arrowsmith shop also recently purchased a truck that allows them to transport their welding equipment, allowing them to respond when companies call for quick repairs.
The Arrowsmith shop is an example of one of the many service businesses that can be created in the local area because the natural gas and oil extraction is taking place. Siebieda and Francis believe they are just one example of how the Marcellus and Utica shale rush can help revitalize the Upper Ohio Valley.
"The companies would hire more local people, but the skill set is not there right now," said Siebieda. "This is not just your typical plate welding. This is highly skilled, complex work that takes time to learn."
In the meantime, Siebieda and Francis said they will continue pressing to get more work in the natural gas business, but will also do work for other local companies.
"It is one thing to be able to weld - it is another thing to run your own business," Siebieda admitted. "But we are growing little by little, and learning our way through it."