School of Energy is finding industry partners

James Fenton
Ken Johnson, the School of Energy interim dean, teaches a class on April 12, at San Juan College. The school is set to graduate six students in the coming months.

FARMINGTON — The School of Energy at San Juan College has established its first partnership with a tribal energy company to provide intensive oilfield training.

The first-of-its-kind agreement to help Native American students and oilfield workers enhance their training for energy careers got traction last year at a Denver oil and gas convention when Randy Pacheco, former dean of the School of Energy, met with officials from Three Affiliated Tribes' Missouri River Resources, located in New Town, N.D., according to Ken Johnson, the school's interim dean.

Earlier this month, the oil and gas company kicked off the initiative by paying for five workers to travel to Farmington to attend classes at the School of Energy for a week of "immersion" training in the basics of well facility equipment, Johnson said.

Ken Johnson, seen here on April 12, is the School of Energy interim dean at San Juan College.

"They were enrolled as students at San Juan College and received high-quality, jump-start immersion ... training on primary surface equipment," Johnson said. "It's a complete umbrella of knowledge they receive."

Johnson said that the partnership is evidence of the college's growing ability to offer unique training that no other educational institution in the U.S. can offer students seeking careers in the energy industries.

Neil Packineau, 26, works for New Town-based Burning Feathers Oilfield Services, a company that contracts with Missouri River Resources, or MRR, and was one of the workers who took part in the five-day training. He said he would like to capitalize on what he learned by returning to San Juan College to ultimately complete the school's two-year Advanced Petroleum Production Operations of Applied Science Degree, or APPO, program.

"I got a lot out of it," he said. "I've worked for some oil companies for four years before (Burning Feathers). I was doing mainly office stuff, making schedules. I wanted to come down and brush up on the production side."

Packineau said he was also encouraged to participate by his brother who got training at the School of Energy's old facility years ago.

"(The college instructors) tailored the training to the equipment that we have in (the Bakken play in the Williston Basin) and some of the stuff that they have down (in the San Juan Basin)," he said. "It was a positive experience. I told my boss to send the rest of the guys. The more knowledgeable we are working for them, it will benefit them in the long run."

He said his only concern is how to pay for the tuition to complete the college's program.

Johnson said that some of the coursework toward completion of the APPO program can be done online and at affiliated community colleges.

But students in the APPO program must be on campus for a semester's worth of training at the new School of Energy's 65,000-square-foot facility — that includes an actual well facility out back used to simulate surface operations in the field.

Students take 28 subject-based core classes in 6.5-hour sessions instead of breaking up the focus into one- or two-hour class meetings two or three times a week, he said.

Dave Williams, Three Affiliated Tribes' Missouri River Resources CEO, said in a phone interview that he and MRR officials will be raising money from other partnerships with schools and tribes as well as federal grants. Williams' mission, he said, is to ensure that more Native Americans secure high-paying jobs in the energy industry. Training workers such as Packineau is just the start, he said.

MRR was launched in 2011 bringing Williams back to the industry after a stint in academia. He started in the oil and gas business working for Gulf-Chevron Oil Company in 1979. He said that company also supported training.

"I wouldn't be here as a CEO of my own company if I hadn't been trained," he said.  "All that training was valuable in creating the person I am today."

Williams said that with 70 percent of workers in the energy industries 50 years of age or older, the industry needs young people to get involved.

"When the Bakken (shale play) came back, we created the company," he said. "We need to meet the challenge of 'the great shift change.'  Meeting and working with a great group of people at San Juan College, we said how can I send kids down here? Growing up in the oil business, working with a major. There's always times when I was the only Native American. I knew the challenges growing up, The derogatory statements ... I have empathy for them. When I thought about this. I reached out to all tribes across America. My goal is not just to hire our own people."

Despite the current downturn in the oil and gas industry, Williams said young people will still continue to find lucrative and rewarding careers in energy fields because of the high salaries those jobs can deliver in boom periods.

"What really helps is the pay," he said. "There have been layoffs. But we still maintain the attitude that the company is half-full. We believe the play will be here for 50 years. We know there's oil here and it keeps flowing."

He said that despite the downturn there are 8,000 jobs available in the Bakken play and industry-supported training at San Juan College can deliver high-paying jobs to Native American students.

College President Toni Pendergrass praised the partnership.

“We have a world-class center for energy education that was built in collaboration with the industry," Pendergrass said. "Working with a forward-thinking business like (MRR) that shares our commitment to educate the current and future workforce is mutually beneficial."

San Juan College ranks second in the U.S. among other community colleges in the number of degrees awarded to Native American students. Native Americans make up more than 30 percent of students at the college, according to the release.

Johnson said that the School of Energy will graduate its first class of six APPO graduates in May.

The School currently has about 250 students enrolled, and through future partnerships like the one with MRR, Johnson said he'd like to realize the full potential of the new $15.8 million facility by training as many as 1,000 students each academic year.

Ken Johnson teaches a class at the School of Energy on April 12 at San Juan College. Johnson is the school's interim dean.

In July, Johnson and other college officials will travel to the southeast part of New Mexico and into West Texas to visit oil and gas companies and increase the number of partnerships with industry.

"We want to be the Harvard of the oil-and-gas business, and we intend to meet that goal," Johnson said. "We're going to reach anywhere we can to offer first-rate training to enhance our student base and help industry, but it also puts us out there on the national level. If we're going to have a partner in oil and gas, we have to move and increase efficiencies and meet that challenge. And we intend to do so."

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.