Compression Training Schools Are Ready For Rebound

College programs rely on gas industry internships, assistance, equipment donations

compressor photo
A shop-floor class at Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology, where machinery often is painted in OSU’s school colors: orange and black.
This article was originally published in the July issue of COMPRESSORtech2. We only publish a fraction of our magazine content online, so for more great content, get every issue in your inbox/mailbox and access to our digital archives with a free subscription.

Regional college compressor operator and maintenance training programs ride the same boom-and-bust cycle that the gas industry does as a whole, but with a time delay.

Indications are that the gas industry is recovering from the latest slump and can expect slow, steady growth in the next 10 years. Not surprising to anyone who has been following the industry, production should grow most in the Marcellus and Utica Shale regions, followed by gas plays in the Permian Basin, the Eagle Ford shale of Texas and field developments in south central Oklahoma.

In the past two years, demand for entry-level gas compression technicians and maintenance technicians has leveled out. Operating companies mostly stopped offering internships to compression students, sending them a discouraging signal about their eventual employment prospects.

But Roy Achemire, who has retired as dean of the Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology’s energy school, said things may appear worse than they are.

“The gas transmission industry loses people all the time through attrition and always needs new bodies,” Achemire said. “It still needs to move gas and maintain its compressor stations.”

Achemire added that the gas industry’s field workforce is dominated by 55- to 65-year-olds who are on the verge of retirement. “When this exodus of senior citizens occurs, a lot of pent-up demand will hit pretty quickly.”

Then too, the gas industry is changing and expanding. New technologies, revisions in regulations and enhanced safety practices are expanding the training needs for the existing workforce.

Gas Compressor Association

Since 1992, the Gas Compressor Association (GCA) has supported college programs that train new mechanics and operators. The association has provided direct financial assistance, and its member companies have donated equipment, instructional support and guidance.

With funds generated by its annual exposition and conference, The GCA has disbursed more than US$400,000 to its college partners. It also invites personnel from the training schools to attend the annual trade show and interact with compression industry professionals.

On its website, the GCA lists its six partner colleges and the equipment donations that educators need to further their hands-on instruction.

The association’s current college partners are Lackawanna College of New Milford, Pennsylvania; OSU’s Institute of Technology at Okmulgee, Oklahoma; Panola College in Carthage, Texas; San Juan College at Farmington, New Mexico; Western Wyoming Community College in Rock Springs, Wyoming; and Zane State College in Cambridge, Ohio.

A GCA goal has been to help the colleges develop more standardized compression and pipeline technology curriculums. The consortium hopes to encourage a common curriculum among the partner colleges based on best industry practices and input from the midstream and upstream gas industry sectors.

Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology

This vocational training school at Okmulgee, Oklahoma, has the nation’s longest established and largest gas compression program.

Oklahoma State’s Natural Gas Compression program has capacity for 160 students. Enrollment peaked at 140 a few years ago.

This past semester, it graduated 20 students, all of whom went to waiting jobs. Eight undergraduate students remained and will be joined by at least 40 new students in the fall semester. Enrollment is expected to exceed 60 in early 2018.

From engines and compressors to programmable logic controls, the Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology (OSUIT) curriculum blends hands-on experience and classroom instruction.

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An Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology student applies his training to machinery.

Students earn an Associate of Applied Science (AAS) degree that requires 73 credit hours. Also required is a semester-long internship, which may be fulfilled when students enter full-time jobs. Known as the capstone, it incorporates the requirements for industry experience after completion of the curriculum. Due to a dearth of industry job opportunities, OSUIT dropped the requirement for an internship midway through its program, but retained all technical classes.

Currently, OSUIT is initiating blended courses that will teach theory online yet give students the opportunity for hands-on instruction in labs on the Okmulgee campus. Instructors also have begun a systematic review of courses to confirm that all meet OSUIT’s “Quality Matters” standards.

In addition to its two-year Natural Gas Compression program, OSUIT’s School of Energy Technologies offers Pipeline Integrity and Power Plant Technology programs. The two-year Pipeline Integrity program trains students to install, operate, maintain, repair and manage the integrity and security of pipelines. Major areas of study include safety, assessing pipeline damage and risk, corrosion control, design and integrity management.

OSUIT claims to have the most advanced and most complete compression training laboratory in the nation. Several years ago, the university added a 27,000 sq.ft. (2230 m2) training center with five classrooms and 17 equipment bays. The center has three operating compressor skids with modern equipment donated by compression providers and suppliers.

A major change for the School of Energy Technologies is Achemire’s recent retirement. He joined the school in 1991 as a gas compression instructor and has overseen the program since 1996.

Achemire’s replacement has not been selected. OSUIT has been reevaluating its program alignment due to an educational funding crisis in Oklahoma. The state legislature was expected to cut appropriations 6% for 25 public colleges and universities, a reduction that would be spread across all operations and programs.

Panola College

The energy program at Panola College at Carthage, Texas, is broad but has a compression subset. Its objective is to prepare students for oil and gas careers, either as lease operators or members of production teams.

The Petroleum Technology Program curriculum includes four semesters of work, fall and spring, at the main campus at Carthage or at the Shelby Regional Training Center at Center, Texas.

The college developed its initial curriculum 10 years ago in cooperation with oil and gas company professionals. Upon completion of the two-year program, students receive a Certificate of Completion and/or an AAS degree.

At the completion of the Certification II level, qualified students may have the opportunity to participate in a summer internship with an oil and gas producing company, pipeline, gas processing plant, or compressor rental fleet.

The two-year AAS in Petroleum Technology includes introductory courses in engines, compressors, controls and processing. A new AAS in Electrical and Instrumentation Technology has been added. Several classes are offered online, complemented by hands-on labs at the Carthage and Center campuses.

Panola’s program is designed so that at the end of every semester, students receive a certificate verifying their completion of necessary requirements. Students then may choose to enter the workforce or continue earning additional certifications or a degree.

Natalie Oswalt, dean of professional and technical programs, said the college recently reached an agreement with Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches,

Texas. Now Panola graduates can apply their two-year AAS degrees toward a four-year Bachelor of Applied Sciences degree at Stephen F. Austin.

Panola bestows certificates each semester. Since 2009, about 1050 certificates or associate degrees have been awarded.

Oswalt said the downturn in the energy business has shrunk the School of Energy’s total enrollment to about 185 students, compared with 256 in the fall of 2015.

“We hope enrollment will increase this fall,” Oswalt said. “We are forming new partnerships with industry, and hopefully we will see the industry to continue turn around.”

Panola has plans to construct an energy technology building to house its programs at the Carthage campus. Last spring, it completed an “outdoor classroom,” an open air-structure for heavy equipment instruction at its Center campus.

Dr. Joe Shannon, long-time professor and vice president of instruction Panola, has resigned to accept a position at Stephen F. Austin University.

Western Wyoming Community College

Gas compression has always held a niche within the industrial training program at Western Wyoming Community College at Rock Springs.

The institution has about 100 students in three different energy-related programs that offer both two-year AAS degrees and one-year certificates. Electrical and Instrumentation Technology, which serves the mining industry as well as oil and gas, is the largest program. Oil and Gas Production Technology ranked second.

The Natural Gas Compression Technology program graduated two students at the end of the spring semester and had six continuing students. That’s down from 16 students at the same time a year ago.

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Students check crosshead clearance and rod runout on a Superior compressor at Western Wyoming Community College.

Joe Uriarte, assistant professor of compression technology, said although demand for compression professionals in the Rocky Mountain region has been slow, things seem to be picking up.

“There are still some job opportunities, though, and we’re seeing the service companies coming around,” Uriarte said. “Rock Springs also is in a unique situation. Around here, compression firms have a lot of local competition, including two coal mines, a power plant, a fertilizer plant and several other large industrial employers. Those factory jobs usually get filled before the compressor mechanics jobs.”

Uriarte said another handicap for the gas compression program is that potential students often don’t know much about the industry subsector or the opportunities it offers. The southwestern Wyoming community college launched its Natural Gas Compression Technology program in 2007-08. Students are taught to troubleshoot, repair and maintain equipment through a combination of lectures and hands-on training.

The anchor of the instructional program is a Caterpillar G3306/GE-Gemini H302 three-stage compressor package installed to run on nitrogen in a closed loop.

Uriarte said the small scope of the compression program has limited the resources that the community college can allocate for it. He is seeking more support and donations from compressor firms, especially a small-frame Ariel compressor for maintenance training purposes.