Enjoying a visit from U.S. Representative Dan Meuser (center) to the Lackawanna College School of Petroleum & Natural Gas on April 3 were (from left) George Stark of Coterra, Christine Clayton of Commonwealth Charitable Management, Lackawanna College president Jill Murray, Eric Bednash of Racktop Systems, Ben Whitaker of Coterra, and Ryan Stalker from Williams Companies.
By Rick Hiduk
(originally published in the Susquehanna County Independent)
Congressman Dan Meuser returned to the area on Monday to take a closer look at the Lackawanna College School of Petroleum & Natural Gas (LC PNG) in Tunkhannock and to learn more about how local industry and the school have worked together to supply local skilled workers for many sectors of the natural gas industry and other businesses. A round-table discussion held on April 3 provided more than 90 minutes for sharing success stories and plans for the future.
Meuser had made a brief stop at the school in February and then toured a gas pad near Springville, where production foreman and LC PNG alumni Ben Whitaker explained how the school had given him a lucrative second career and how LC PNG continues to supply qualified workers for the gas fields. “It seems that it really opened up the congressman’s eyes and how the school can provide us with good employees and candidates,” Whitaker remarked.
In addition to Whitaker, key presenters included Lackawanna College president Jill Murray, Commonwealth Charitable Management CEO Christine Clayton, and Williams Companies commercial development representative Ryan Stalker. Other guests included the three Wyoming County commissioners, county DA Joe Peters, Tunkhannock Area School District superintendent Paul Dougherty, and Wyoming County Chamber of Commerce president Gina Suydam. All expressed gratitude for the congressman’s attention to the school and its importance to the energy sector.
“What Lackawanna College has done here is simple brilliance,” Meuser stated. “Clearly, the natural gas industry is very significant and right under our feet. What they are doing here is world class. It’s starting at the high school level and leading into college. It allows people to stay and work here if they choose.”
“We have enjoyed a wonderful relationship with Lackawanna College and their ability to provide us with high quality employees,” said Stalker, a Gibson resident. “I really appreciated the congressman being here in person to talk to us as a group and hear all of the pieces come together. When you start to put all those pieces together, it gives you a great example of what success looks like.”
Dual enrollment is a growing part of the success of the program, Clayton noted. Commonwealth Charitable Management matches various funding streams with high school students showing aptitude for specific trades and allows them to take college level courses in high school and obtain credits that they can transfer to college upon graduation. Coterra recently committed an additional $100,000 towards dual enrollment grants and scholarships.
“Dual enrollment is a great stepping stone for them to see the industry and that it’s an option,” Whitaker said in a nod to Clayton and what she has done for the industry. “Because of the dual enrollment program, we have students starting earlier, interning by the age of 19, and coming on to the workforce with the equivalent of three to five years in the industry.” Out of about 60 current field employees employed by Coterra, who helped to coordinate the event, Whitaker estimates that 15 of them came from LC PNG.
Williams has approximately 360 employees, and at least 70 of them have come from Lackawanna College. “Williams does a wide variety of things in northeast PA, and Lackawanna College provides us with high quality graduates to do all of those things,” Stalker related. “We’re now to the point that the talent that was cultivated here is going outward to other parts of our company and other parts of the country.”
According to Brian Costanza, Lackawanna College vice president for external affairs, the discussion not only allowed administrators to share how the relationships the school has with those in the gas industry has helped to shape the PNG program but also how, as an educational model, it can be replicated.
College president Jill Murray introduced Eric Bednash, CEO of Racktop Systems, which specializes in cybersecurity, one of several new fields for which a concentrated two-year program can produce qualified workers. Lackawanna College plans to open its new Center for Technology Innovation in Scranton next year to also train adult learners in robotics, and electric and hybrid vehicle maintenance.
“The congressman wanted to hear the story,” Coterra director of external affairs George Stark offered. “Ultimately, we were able to showcase the connecting of the dots. Jill and her predecessors set it up, Christine Clayton helps provide high school students with funding, and we hire the graduates. What may look complicated, they’ve made so easy.”
“I think it’s great that he’s been involved so quickly,” Whitaker said of Meuser. “Just seeing him being intrigued by the school and the industry, he can probably help us by sharing what the school and the industry do.”
Stalker added that he hopes that Meuser can continue to speak to the importance of getting the natural gas in the Marcellus shale to other markets via Williams’ pipelines and help to “make the permitting process as reasonable as possible.”
Meuser assured those in attendance that this would not be his last visit to LC PNG. “We have some more work to do in Washington like increasing the availability of Pell Grants,” he stated. “It was also important to hear from the employers about their commitment to the area and their plans to be here for years.”