College initiative aims to keep oil workers in North Dakota

AP News
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Posted: Sep 04, 2015 5:51 PM

FARGO, N.D. (AP) — Newly hired North Dakota University System Chancellor Mark Hagerott was recently touring the state's booming oil patch when the Rhodes scholar met a rig worker with a high school diploma. Hagerott, a cybersecurity expert, said he soon found himself talking shop with an intellectual equal.

"As a former nuclear engineer, I was asking questions about power ratings, capacities, tensile strength — and he knew everything about his rig," Hagerott said. "I said, 'What happens if you get laid off?' And he said, 'Well, I guess I can go back and pump gas.'"

That, he said, was when an idea hit him: The state had a pool of potential college students among the waves of often transient oilfield workers, and if tapped, could help keep workers in North Dakota when the oil industry slows down.

The result was Bakken U, a program tailored to help oilfield workers earn a degree or certificate from one of five colleges and universities in western North Dakota with energy-related and high-tech degree programs. Recruitment recently started, and officials envision students pursuing programs ranging from one- or two-year certificates to graduate degrees.

Hagerott said he has spent $11,000 to get the concept off the ground and start the website, http://bakkenu.ndus.edu , since coming up with the idea last month. His next step is finding businesses looking for educated workers to provide scholarships and grants. Admission requirements and tuition will be the same as for regular students, and courses may be a combination from several schools and online.

"A lot of young folks who came up here to make some money — when it was prime time to do that — aren't sure what they're going to do next," said Richard Rothaus, the North Dakota University System's director of academic programs, research and accreditation. "As things slow down, that is the time for people to retrain, or recertify, or gain additional skills."

A major element of the program — named for the sprawling Bakken rock formation fueling the region's oil boom — is in recruitment. Organizers will take a different approach from how universities usually try to attract high school students.

"Let's face it: Many (college) students come from middle class families who have everything figured out. Their parents have gone to college. They can tell them exactly what questions to ask," said Hagerott, also a former professor with the Navy. "And these predominantly young men who are doing incredibly important work don't want to embarrass themselves with people who aren't appreciative."

He said the program will provide oilfield workers with advisers "who respect the job they do" and are willing to answer basic questions.

Bakken U includes three two-year colleges and two four-year universities. Hagerott said there is a college campus within an hour of any of the region's towns or so-called man camps, the large temporary housing areas established for oilfield workers.

Even with the oil slowdown, Hagerott said, there are about 35,000 job openings in the state.

"We all know the oil work will pick back up. The question is when," said Larry Skogen, president of Bismarck State College. "If it takes a year, well, in a year they can get certified as a welder. In two years they can get a degree in petroleum programs. You don't have to pack up and go away."

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Online:

Bakken U: http://bakkenu.ndus.edu