By Alana Rocha, Texas Tribune
MIDLAND â€” As this Permian Basin city continues to thrive amid an oil boom transforming the region, local drilling companies have faced challenges in recruiting workers to come to West Texas.
But the local school district plans to implement a program that could provide a homegrown solution to those labor concerns.
Pending school board approval, the Midland school district will launch a pilot program in January for its “petroleum academyâ€ for high schoolers. It will include state-approved courses for students who want to work in the oil industry immediately following graduation and those who wish to obtain a college degree in a related field. The district plans to roll out the academy next fall.
Ryder Warren, the Midland ISD superintendent, said district officials established the academyâ€™s curriculum after surveying parents and students about possible new areas of study. The move comes after lawmakers in 2013 passed legislation allowing high schoolers to earn diplomas in specialized areas.
“I have parents and kids who are now going to tell me what programs we need to provide,â€ Warren said. “Thatâ€™s a very exciting change in the entire state in public education.â€
The academy will include Texas Education Agency-approved engineering classes and oil and gas curriculum that begin in the ninth grade, said Kim Evans, Midland ISDâ€™s career and technical education director.
Warren said the district intends to bring oil and gas workers into the classroom to share their expertise, take students on field trips to training facilities and arrange internships for seniors looking to join the workforce straight out of high school. A cost for the academy will be determined at the end of this year, as part of the 2015-16 budget.
“We want to grow kids who are going to be competitive in any market,â€ Warren said. “But I think we owe it to our local business owners â€” especially in the oil and gas business â€” to really understand the skills that theyâ€™re looking for and be able to provide that through the program.â€
The district will hire two specialized teachers to head the curriculum at freshman and high school campuses on both sides of town. District officials worry that with lucrative salaries in the oil industry itself, finding qualified teachers could be difficult.
“We have teachers leaving the school to go work for the oil companies â€˜cause they can make more money that way,â€ Evans said.
Officials were able to move forward with the academy after lawmakers passed House Bill 5 last year, reducing the required number of state standardized tests for high school students and allowing them to earn diplomas in specialized areas or “endorsements,â€ such as science and technology and business and industry.
Warren called the legislation a “game changerâ€ for the districtâ€™s students and the local business community.
“Every kid has a gift, and we have to go find it,â€ he said. “We have to design our programs to meet their needs, rather than vice versa.â€
The petroleum academy plan has been welcomed by area oil and gas producers, like Pioneer Natural Resources, which said that given the difficulty of recruiting workers to the area, it would be beneficial to foster an “organic workforce.â€
With housing at a premium and the cost of living skyrocketing in the Permian Basin, the academyâ€™s potential to provide workers who already live in the area would address a pressing need for drilling companies.
“This will give employers a much larger pool of qualified candidates right off the bat,â€ said Nellwyn Barnett, an executive vice president at the Midland Chamber of Commerce.
Barnett said the oil and gas industry is easily the most represented among the chamberâ€™s member companies. Hiring right out of high school requires more on-the-job training and raises safety concerns for many, she said, because of the studentsâ€™ lack of experience working in highly specialized areas.
“Weâ€™re just privileged to have a district thatâ€™s responsive to the needs of the community,â€ Barnett said.
The district has long had the support of oil and gas companies, which have donated upwards of $11 million to support staffing in the district.
Midland ISD leaders will present the academy plan to the school board next month for approval. After the pilot program gets off the ground in the spring, officials will garner feedback ahead of the academyâ€™s full implementation in the 2015-16 school year.
The petroleum academy will be the first of many such specialty programs, the district said. Others, including culinary arts programs to help staff restaurants and hotels and a health sciences initiative to supply much-needed hospital workers, are in the early stages of development.
“Weâ€™re going to raise our own, and [the companies] are willing to help, so itâ€™s going to be a community partnership in order to get this task taken care of,â€ Evans said.