Editor’s note: This story is part of a package examining how community colleges in Texas are innovating to address pressures facing two-year schools nationwide. We started this reporting before the pandemic, and as the crisis unfolded, we thought it was important to show how schools are set up to respond to a potential rise in interest and a heightened need to retrain workers.
If the oil and gas industry is the lifeblood of the Texas economy, the state's colleges are the heart that keeps the sector thumping. For years, its schools, and particularly its community colleges, have worked hand-in-hand with the sector to develop curricular priorities and train workers on their processes and equipment.
But what happens when part of the system takes a hit?
The industry is grappling with a two-pronged crisis. As the coronavirus reduced global demand for oil, Saudi Arabia flooded the market with the commodity to retaliate against Russia, which refused in March to curtail its crude production to keep prices stable.
A month later, U.S. oil prices nosedived into negative territory for the first time in history. Prices have since partially rebounded, but the events took a toll on the Texas workforce. The state's oil and gas industry cut a record 26,300 jobs in April.
Community colleges will likely be charged with retraining a large share of those workers, even in a dismal economic landscape. Some will have to enter new fields entirely. Others will need to learn new skills to stay in their profession.
But several community college presidents echoed the same point: Their institutions must ensure they're teaching oil and gas workers — as with people in any industry — skills that can be carried into another profession or sector and that safeguard them against future job losses.
Community colleges are usually tuned into local employers' needs, so they can quickly pivot their offerings to what the job market is calling for. And Texas colleges are making programmatic changes to take on the task.
"For some companies, (this is) one of the most challenging seasons they've had in a long time," said Monique Umphrey, president of Houston Community College Northeast, which resides in the self-proclaimed energy capital of the world. "They need to know they can hire people who are critical thinkers, who have strong analytical capabilities, and are resourceful and resilient."
Creating the multiskilled technician
Texas is more than familiar with the boom-and-bust nature of the oil and gas industry.
When business is good, the sector can somewhat shield the state's economy from downturns. That was the case during and after the Great Recession, when modern fracking took off in Texas and propelled the U.S. to become the world's top producer of crude oil.
Over that time, one of the biggest challenges for community colleges in the state was convincing students to get an education rather than to directly enter the workforce, said Gregory Williams, president of Odessa College. The school sits atop the Permian Basin, an energy trove that can produce millions of barrels of oil each day.
"When things are booming, employers will need as many employees as they can (get)," he said. "We just have to continue to change the mindset of our population to realize that … the more education you can add to your resume the better off you're going to be" long term.
Williams credits a host of initiatives meant to make enrolling and attending the college easier for helping Odessa grow its enrollment from around 4,700 students in the fall of 2008 to some 7,100 students a decade later, despite an overall decrease in U.S. community college enrollment.
There are signs the pandemic-related downturn could accelerate that growth. Odessa's student headcount was up 31% year-over-year for its Maymester, a three-week term that begins in May.
But the downturn presents new challenges for the college, which will have to retrain numerous workers who may be reeling from job losses in the region's oil and gas industry.
As the U.S. enters a pandemic-induced recession, the oil bust underway in Texas is expected to slow the state's economic recovery. Yet community college leaders say they know how to tackle these issues.
"In the oil industry, we all know we deal with ups and downs," Williams said. "The more high tech your role, the more likely you are to survive."
To that end, energy employers are looking for multiskilled technicians, said Christine Carpenter, director of the Energy Providers Coalition for Education, a network of employers working to create more online education opportunities in the industry.
"They need to know they can hire people who are critical thinkers, who have strong analytical capabilities, and are resourceful and resilient."
President, Houston Community College Northeast
Community colleges can produce those workers by combining learning outcomes from several different energy programs into one, she said, so students come out "with a multiskilled set of competencies" that will enable them to change roles depending on their employer's needs.
Williams said Odessa is producing this kind of worker in its instrumentation and electronics technology program, which teaches students several broad skills — including electrical, instrumentation and automation — and prepares them for multiple types of technician roles.
"Those students are doing the work that multiple people were doing only a few years ago," Williams said. "(Employers) really don't want to get rid of those people."
Likewise, Houston Community College Northeast is adding new programs and improving the ones it has in order to keep up with changes in the oil and gas sector.
"Because we're in unprecedented territory, (employers) are going to have to define a new path, so that will require people that are resourceful and resilient," Umphrey said. "Never before has adaptability been more important."
Her institution is developing a data analytics program for the petroleum industry that will initially be offered as a continuing education program to assess interest. The college is also launching an industrial worker program that will lead to a certificate and teach skills students can apply to multiple industries.
The programs will be offered at the Northeast campus and as needed across the system, a spokesperson said.
Leapfrogging into employment
Enrollment in community colleges usually surges when the economy is bad and ebbs as it improves. But given the scope of this crisis — the unemployment rate nationwide and in Texas was about 13% in May — colleges will have their work cut out for them.
Several tools are available to Texas oil and gas workers to help them find the education they need to take up a new career.
Among them is Petrochem Works, a joint effort from several of the state's community colleges and industry partners. Together they built a website that helps Texas workers find jobs in the petrochemical industry that align with their interests and discover the training they need to advance in their careers.
But students are likely to take different approaches to their education, Odessa's Williams said. While older workers may seek to upskill quickly to remain in their jobs, younger ones may use retraining as an opportunity to "embark on a totally new area of either the oil industry or some other field," he said.
Indeed, some oil and gas workers were looking to escape the turbulence of the sector even before the pandemic hit the U.S. economy, said Betty McCrohan, president of Wharton County Junior College.
As of January, there were 233,100 jobs in Texas related to mining, quarrying and oil and gas extraction, according to data from the Texas Workforce Commission.
"When industry changes, we change."
President, Wharton County Junior College
It's too early to tell if oil and gas workers who were laid off will leave the sector en masse. But responses from nearly 3,000 people in a wide range of industries to online survey questions from the Strada Education Network in March and April offer some hints.
A little more than a third of workers in construction and extraction surveyed said they would look for a job in a new field if they lost their jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic. And a similar share said they would need more education to find a position with similar income if they became unemployed.
Stephanie Roberts, a spokesperson for Workforce Solutions for North Central Texas, a workforce development organization that spans 14 of the state's counties, said she's seeing similar trends. "A lot of people are interested in possibly changing occupations," she said of all unemployed workers, noting that the organization is helping them improve their skill set to land a new job.
Training for healthcare jobs could be particularly popular for workers switching careers because they typically grow during downturns, sources interviewed for this story said. However, even healthcare jobs haven't been immune from layoffs and reduced hours resulting from the pandemic.
And some people aren't looking for extensive retraining. "That takes a little time, but then you also have people that just want a job," Roberts said. "They're trying to take care of their families and have some sort of self-sufficient wage to pay their bills."
This could make short-term credentials more attractive, some sources told Education Dive. Indeed, workers in construction and extraction were the most likely out of several fields to say they would want nondegree or skills-based training if they were to enroll in additional education in the next six months, according to responses from about 1,300 people in the Strada Education poll.
Community colleges are uniquely positioned to deliver this sort of training.
Two-year schools often have more offerings that lead to immediate employment than do universities, said Roy Mathew, national practice leader at Deloitte Consulting. "They're designed in a way that is more pathway-focused" and at a lower price point, he said.
At Wharton County Junior College, officials are hoping to turn some of their one- and two-year programs into short-term credentials to quickly train students for specific jobs. McCrohan, the school's president, also noted that several of its offerings, including cybersecurity and other computer training, can apply to multiple jobs.
"When industry changes, we change," McCrohan said.