April 2017, Vol. 244, No. 4


PECO, Higher Ed. Partner on Next-Generation Natural Gas Workforce

By Greg Smore, Senior Communications Specialist, PECO, Philadelphia

Providing safe and reliable natural gas service is the hallmark of every natural gas distribution company. This takes a committed approach to investing in state-of-the-art equipment and best-practice sharing among industry peers to improve operations and implement the latest safety trends.

New equipment and technology are important pieces to this puzzle, but hold little value if the organization lacks the right people to maintain the system or implement new techniques.

The natural gas industry is facing a personnel challenge. Simply stated, natural gas utility companies need more skilled workers. This is being felt acutely in Pennsylvania, where many, if not all, natural gas utility companies are undertaking extraordinary initiatives to modernize hundreds of miles of existing natural gas pipeline with new pipe, which is safer, more durable and reliable.

At PECO, the state’s largest natural gas and electric distribution company headquartered in Philadelphia, we have increased our investment in our natural gas main and service line replacement to $61 million each year with plans to replace over 50 miles of main by 2018.

The Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry estimates that over 600 skilled workers are expected to be needed to assist in the repair and replacement of gas distribution pipelines in the region over the next several years. In fact, we estimate that we will need 10% more people to work on PECO’s natural gas system during the next 20 years alone, due to increased demand for natural gas and increased system modernization efforts in southeastern Pennsylvania.

This additional main and service line replacement work, paired with ongoing natural gas system maintenance programs, clearly exposes the challenge.

But with every challenge, comes an opportunity. To meet the needs of the industry, PECO partnered with the Collegiate Consortium for Workforce and Economic Development to create the Gas Distribution Pipeline Mechanic Introduction Program, as part of a coordinated approach to develop a local, skilled, natural gas workforce.

The Collegiate Consortium for Workforce & Economic Development is a non-profit organization that is a partnership of Drexel University and five area community colleges. The Consortium provides a comprehensive, coordinated approach to developing a highly skilled workforce for the region. The combined efforts of the five community colleges, which emphasize advanced technical training, and a university, which offers advanced education, creates a unique model for education and training.

The program was created to provide students with the fundamental skills necessary to work in the natural gas distribution industry. The curriculum was developed through a coordinated approach led by the Collegiate Consortium in partnership with PECO, and was supported by industry counterparts, including Philadelphia Gas Works, and natural gas contractors Henkels & McCoy and Utility Line Services.

“This course provides an excellent opportunity for those who are interested in entering the natural gas distribution industry, and provides the essential foundation to do just that,” said Ron Bradley, vice president of Gas Operations, PECO. “The program is a strong example of how the natural gas industry has partnered with higher education to develop solutions to meet this employment challenge, with the goal of developing highly skilled candidates to take on these in-demand jobs.”

The inaugural program launched in early June 2016, with the first class being held at Delaware County Community College in Media, PA.

“The Collegiate Consortium is pleased to partner with natural gas industry leaders on providing the skill-specific training needed to ensure the flow of safe, reliable natural gas to homes and businesses,” said Dr. Jerry Parker, president of Delaware County Community College and chairman of the Collegiate Consortium.

A student must be at least 18 years old to apply for the program, possess a valid driver’s license from their state of residency, pass a Department of Transportation drug test and physical, be eligible to work in the United States and achieve a passing score on a mechanical aptitude test. Students will receive 140 classroom hours in addition to 50 hours of operator instruction.

Upon successful completion, students will have a number of operator-qualified (OQ) task certifications. This supplemental course work does not guarantee employment. However, it provides a way for candidates to set themselves apart from the competition. To underscore that point, natural gas distribution companies and contracting companies receive hundreds of applications for open positions, but finding the right candidate with those essential skills needed for natural gas distribution systems is rare.

The Gas Distribution Pipeline Mechanic Introduction Program was adapted from training courses developed by the Gas Technology Institute. PECO also expanded its alliance with the Northeast Gas Association to administer exams and to issue operator-qualified certifications.

“We’ve also been lucky to have an existing workforce that fully supports these efforts, knowing that bringing up well-trained employees and contractors will ultimately benefit everyone involved, ensuring work is completed safely and efficiently,” said Bradley. “We have current and former PECO natural gas employees as well as current Philadelphia Gas Works employees who have donated their time and expertise to sculpt the curriculum and serve as instructors for this hands-on course.”

The Collegiate Consortium continues to work with the specific community colleges that are hosting the program to promote the course offering through career fairs and the local workforce investment boards. In addition, PECO continues to promote these class offerings through our existing communication channels including social media and customer bill inserts. The first program concluded in October 2016, and upon completion, all seven of the graduates were offered positions with local contractors.

“My experience from the program was invaluable to becoming a natural gas mechanic,” said Dan Shavney, a member of the inaugural class held at Delaware County Community College. “I was also fortunate enough to be hired by one of the supporting contractor companies, Utility Line Services. Shortly after completing the course, I was working with a natural gas maintenance crew on a project for PECO.”

A second class was held at Delaware County Community College and was completed in December 2016. The Community College of Philadelphia began a class in February.

PECO is deeply committed to supporting educational programs that sustain our region, promoting a diverse and inclusive work environment and a workforce that reflects the communities we serve while providing economic opportunities to help local neighborhoods thrive. This program delivers on all three focus areas, but most importantly, it provides an opportunity for young people to join a growing industry with jobs that are truly in demand.

“This program is a win all the way around for the industry and a win for southeastern Pennsylvania, as this work ensures safe and reliable natural gas service for our customers and provides good, family-sustaining jobs for the region,” said Mike Innocenzo, senior vice president and COO, PECO. “We look forward to continuing our partnership with the local community college network to expand this program to help train the next generation of the natural gas workforce.”



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