An effort to prepare West Texas students to work in the oil and gas industry is expanding

Legacy High School juniors Giovanni Parra, Luke Frysak, and Isaiah Estrada take part in a lesson on electrical circuits during their Oil and Gas Production II class on Nov. 6 in Midland. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

By Carlos Nogueras Ramos, The Texas Tribune

MIDLAND When Giovanni Parra’s instructor asked the class to weld the opposite ends of a wire during a lesson on soldering, the 16-year-old sprinted to the nearest workstation.

Parra is among dozens of students in a technical education program offered by the Midland school district that is preparing students to work in their own backyard, the oil-rich Permian Basin.

Unlike other classes at his high school, this one makes Parra feel connected to his family’s legacy.

“My whole family works in the oil fields,” Parra said. “I’m trying to see what I’m good at.”

Parra, a sophomore, is one of a few students who have access to this sort of hands-on learning. Within the 55 counties making up the Permian Basin between Texas and New Mexico, just four school districts offer classes that directly prepare students for work in the oil fields — a highly competitive market always short of workers. And two programs are fully enrolled.

In Odessa, hundreds of students are on a waitlist to take classes that teach them the basics of oil and gas.

Midland College assistant professor Anthony Cummins instructs area high school students during an Oil and Gas Production II class. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

An effort to expand access to oil and gas production courses to other high schools in Texas and New Mexico is underway, led in large part by energy companies. The region’s education leaders say the support helps both the schools and the industry.

“From the energy industry’s perspective, they are developing the next generation of workers,” said Scott Muri, superintendent of the public school district in Ector County, which includes Odessa.

Working with the state’s education department, the Permian Strategic Partnership, an organization made up of the leading energy companies including Chevron, ConocoPhillipps and ExxonMobil, is helping two schools in the Permian Basin and two in New Mexico put in place similar coursework that Parra is learning today.

Despite the fact that the West Texas economy has long run on the extraction business, this is one of the first modern attempts to prepare high school students to work in the fields before they graduate.

A group of high school students create an electrical circuit using two lightbulbs and a set of cables on a specialized electronic training board during their Oil and Gas Production II class. The class was designed by the Midland Independent School District to teach students vocational oil and gas studies. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

It’s part of a shift in public education to work closely with local business leaders to provide students with specific employable skills. The partnership plans to foot the cost of classroom supplies, teacher training and marketing.

“The oil and gas industry in the Permian Basin is going to be around for decades to come,” said Tracee Bentley, president of Permian Strategic Partnership. “We want the region to be successful. We know we are missing out on so much talent right here at home.”

A heated statewide debate over how to teach climate change in schools serves as the backdrop to the industry’s efforts to expand vocational instruction in the Permian Basin. Last week, the State Board of Education, a 15-member body controlled by Republicans, voted to reject seven of 12 proposed science books.

The board rejected textbooks containing policy solutions for climate change, as well as those published by companies that advocate for certain policies to combat climate change.

Human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gasses from fossil fuel use, are the leading cause of climate change, according to the National Climate Assessment, a federal report requested by Congress in 1990 and signed into law by Republican President George H.W. Bush.

School districts aren’t obligated to exclusively use state-approved titles, but most will since those books are guaranteed to comply with state standards.

The Permian partnership, which led the $4.5 million effort to put the class in place, declined to specifically address how climate change is addressed in Texas classrooms. In a statement, the partnership said it would follow all state standards.

However, in New Mexico, the partnership said, the curriculum specifically addresses “energy efficiency and renewable energy, in addition to oil and natural gas.”

Midland College assistant professor Anthony Cummins instructs a group of high school students in a lesson on electrical circuits. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

The program is one of several industry-specific classes being taught in Texas classrooms. More than 100 courses in Texas schools are offered to educate students on jobs from farming to dentistry to pharmacy.

Establishing and maintaining these skills-specific courses is difficult, said Jeff Horner, executive director of the Career and Technical Education Center in the Midland school district. Getting courses green-lit for the classroom requires exhaustive administrative upkeep to meet requirements, a time and resource-intensive commitment schools can’t always afford.

The state’s education agency calls for sponsors, a pilot program that lasts at least a year, and a renewal every two years. Horner said that fulfilling the state’s requirements while keeping up with an industry that changes frequently makes the program difficult to maintain with limited resources.

“It’s hard to keep the students up to date,” Horner said.

In Midland, classes are outsourced in the local college, and two instructors who belong to the faculty divvy the workload. One instructor commutes to the high school two times a week, while a second instructor waits for the students to commute from school to attend classes at the college.

High school juniors Kimberly Arredondo, Elyse Alvarez and Frannevic Alcala take part in an electrical circuit activity during their Oil and Gas Production II class. Credit: Eli Hartman/The Texas Tribune

More staff is always ideal but not feasible, said Anthony Cummins, assistant professor of energy at Midland College. Teachers are in short supply, and it can take anywhere from six months to a year before the college secures a qualified instructor, he said.

“It can be difficult to hire instructors because we can make more in the oil fields,” Cummins said.

Disclosure: Exxon Mobil Corporation has been a financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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