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Coastal Bend Higher Ed Meets Workforce Demands of a Growing Economy

Job demand in oil- and gas-related industries fuels growth in training and skills development at Coastal Bend colleges and universities.

By Teree Caruthers on August 7, 2015

Recent investments spurred by the growth of oil and gas production have also stimulated the Coastal Bend job market, creating a surplus of jobs in fields such as engineering, construction and advanced manufacturing. The region’s colleges and universities have quickly responded to growing workforce demands by adding new programs of study, building training facilities and establishing relationships with local businesses.
Texas A&M University-Kingsville (TAMUK), for example, reinstituted its bachelor of science degree in natural gas engineering in 2012. The college of engineering has also established a doctoral program in sustainable energy systems engineering.
“It was a nice marriage between the expertise we have here at the college and the unique position we’re in in South Texas,” says Dr. Stephen Nix, dean of the Frank H. Dotterweich College of Engineering at TAMUK, regarding the additions. “We have traditional sources of energy – oil and gas – but we also have an abundance of alternative sources such as solar and wind and even geothermal in some locations. It made a lot of sense for us to offer a program that explores these alternative sources and works to move all these industries forward so we can contribute to the economic development of the region.”
To meet the need for more engineers in the oil and gas industry as well as other growing industries locally, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi (TAMUCC) recently debuted a new bachelor of science degree program in electrical engineering, along with a mechanical engineering program that focuses on unmanned flight and geospatial sciences. The university also has new advanced degree programs in geospatial computing and coastal and marine system science to respond to rising demand for expertise in these areas.
Innovative Ideas
TAMUCC’s Conrad Blucher Institute for Surveying and Science graduates a number of professionals, such as land surveyors, who directly impact the oil and gas industry. The institute has developed geographic information systems (GIS) technology that maps individual pipelines in the oil field by collecting data on pipe diameter, depth and materials used in the pipe’s construction. Researchers have also built a computerized tide gauge network that serves real-time information about tide conditions to assist in safely navigating oil products in and out of ports.
“If there is an oil spill in the ship channel, that is an extremely expensive cleanup event – the data we provide helps avoid that,” says Dr. Gary Jeffress, director of the Conrad Blucher Institute. “We develop hydrodynamic models of the bay, where we use tide gauges and current meters and data on wind speed and direction to give predictions on what the current will be so that ship pilots and barge operators can know ahead of time what the conditions are and can plan accordingly.”
Training Ground for Talent
With the influx of capital investment in and around Corpus Christi, Del Mar College has applied for and received grants from various sources to train and provide services for the high-demand oil and gas industry. The college received $117,000 to develop a training program for TCPO America Corporation, a Chinese company in the process of building a $1.3 billion pipe manufacturing plant, $100,000 to train veterans for civilian jobs and $1.3 million to train petrochemical construction workers for CB&I as it expands its OxyChem production plant.
The college also partnered with Cheniere Energy and other industry partners to build a $1 million Process and Instrumentation Technology Pilot Plant that will serve as a fully functioning training lab for Del Mar students and Cheniere employees. The pilot plant will also help train Gregory-Portland High School students enrolled in the college’s dual enrollment program. Students take a series of courses designed by industry leaders, including Cheniere, and upon graduation are able to certify in certain skills areas or transfer credits toward a two-year degree.
“We have a huge demand on our workforce because of the more than $30 billion of investment coming into our region,” says Lenora Keas, Vice President of Workforce Development and Strategic Initiatives for Del Mar College. “Most of these are new jobs that didn’t exist before. You see business and industry looking at us to lead the way with those programs that prepare a skilled workforce.”
Coastal Bend College’s workforce programs offer students in the region’s more rural counties opportunities to complete a certificate or degree in one to two years to obtain jobs in high-demand, high-wage occupations such as oil and gas technology, welding, allied health and business and computer technology. Another regional workforce development leader, the Craft Training Center, offers courses in areas such as pipefitting, pipeline construction and instrumentation, and recently expanded to meet training demands.

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