By Ernest Scheyder
WILLISTON, N.D. (Reuters) - North Dakota's public universities have launched a scholarship program to enroll laid-off oilfield workers in energy classes, contending their best path to a new job is learning mechanical and computer skills.
The strategy is designed to raise university enrollment as much as it is to prevent a drain of talent from the second-largest oil-producing state in the country. Hundreds of workers are losing jobs as the number of drilling rigs and hydraulic fracturing crews, the lifeblood of any oilfield, falls along with crude prices.
While the state does not tabulate the number of oil-related job cuts, anecdotes abound of laid-off roustabouts opting to leave the Peace Garden State once they get a pink slip. The population of Williston, epicenter of the state's oil boom, has declined more than 6 percent in the past year.
Still, there are more than 200 open oilfield jobs in North Dakota's four largest oil producing counties, according to state data, including postings for diesel mechanics, well operators and pipeline supervisors. All require advanced training.
"Good people are losing jobs, and this is a time for them to go back to school," said Mark Hagerott, chancellor of the North Dakota University System, who has dubbed the endeavor "Bakken U" after the shale formation underlying most of the western part of the state.
The 61,000-student university system, which has lost about 1 percent of its enrollment in the past five years even as the state's population grew 11 percent, is asking energy companies to make tax-deductible donations to a scholarship fund.
"We know which employers have job openings," said Kathy Neset, chair of the state's board of higher education and a geologist who is leading a push for the oil industry to fund the campaign.
The 11-member university system is creating a scholarship committee and hopes to begin taking applications next month from prospective students for the spring semester. The number of scholarships will depend on donations.
The North Dakota Petroleum Council, an oil industry trade group, and the Bank of North Dakota, which is controlled by the state, are considering funding at least 10 scholarships for the spring semester, the university system's office said.
Ben Nielsen is the type of student the scholarship program hopes to attract. He enrolled in Williston State College's petroleum program this fall to learn how to program, repair and automate natural gas equipment.
"The tech jobs aren't going anywhere," said Nielsen. "Those are the jobs in demand right now."
Petroleum classes are new for most parts of the oil patch. Williston State College created its two-year petroleum technology program in 2012, 61 years after the first commercial oil well was drilled in the state. The program is only at 60 percent capacity.
The university system is heavily marketing technical skills, pointing out that upon graduation, students could seek jobs in computer network, information technology and other industries.
"If you can master oilfield technology, I think you can master any number of other fields," Hagerott said.
(Reporting by Ernest Scheyder; Editing by Toni Reinhold)