Gas is a hot topic in Somerset these days — and some local students are using it to fuel their own bright futures.
Pulaski County Area Technology Center (ATC) is at the forefront of education nationally with its Natural Gas Pipeline Technician Program, and local leadership couldn’t be prouder.
“As far as we know right now, nobody is offering this at the secondary level in the United States,” said Dr. Beth Hargis, principal at ATC.
“We’re seeing a lot of natural gas in the news,” she added. “It’s really picking up steam. Now we have at least one school in Louisiana that’s wanting to start the program, but we really want to set the standard for how this goes in the country.”
Indeed, natural gas has made news right here in Somerset in recent years. The multi-million dollar energy hub planned for downtown Somerset will be a monitoring station for the city’s vast natural gas pipeline network (stretching through six counties). Cars emblazoned with the “compressed natural gas” logo can be seen on city streets. Back in 2012, the city activated the state’s first natural gas tank filling station.
And perhaps then it shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s Somerset’s own mayor that Hargis credits with providing the inspiration for the school’s program.
“A couple of years ago, (Mayor Eddie Girdler) was at one of our steering committee meetings,” said Hargis. “He said, ‘I’ll tell you a program you need. ... You need to be offering some gas instruction. We need people. Whenever something happens, we’re having to contract it out. It’s costing us a fortune. We need people around here who can get training.’”
The school already trains students in the areas of welding, carpentry, automotives, information technology and health sciences, but gas was something new that the school jumped on quickly.
Somerset has chipped in and helped provide numerous pieces of equipment as well as an instructor from the city’s gas department, Russell White. Girdler estimates that the city has spent about $50,000 this year on the school’s program, out of $100,000 budgeted for it by the Somerset City Council.
“It’s been just a wonderful partnership between the school systems,” said Girdler, who noted that the ATC serves students from both Pulaski County and Somerset school districts. “The Somerset superintendent and I went to visit several colleges, including the University of Kentucky .... and developed the idea. From there, we met with Dr. Hargis. She was so gracious to take it on.”
Hargis particularly appreciated White’s participation. “It’s hard to find a teacher, because the majority of people are making big money in the industry, so they don’t want to come for a teacher’s salary and do this.”
Said White, “I’ve enjoyed it to the point where most of my kids have taken to it and want to learn. I’ve been well-pleased with the effort they’ve put into it.”
What do they enjoy most? “The explosions are a real big hit.”
Those are contained explosions, for the record, in a special “explosion tube” where oxygen and gas mix to cause a brilliant reaction — but it’s not just fireworks that are attractive to students. There are lots of opportunities for well-paying jobs once students get out into the market.
“The skill set for this industry is so huge,” said Hargis. “You could be an engineer. You could be a meter reader.
“A lot of kids came into it with preconceived notions,” she added. “We have one young lady who’s in it, so she’s considered a non-traditional student for us. She wants to go into engineering. She jumped on board with this immediately.”
That student, Maci New, a senior, called the program “very empowering” in a release provided by the school.
“I think it makes it all the more worthwhile and satisfying when I achieve something,” she said. “I know there will be a lot of information to it and a lot of hands-on activities, but I want to see what parts of the program interest me. I just want to make something of myself.”
The City of Somerset is giving a number of students a head start. The mayor has offered positions to the school’s graduating seniors, and seven students have applied for summer internships with the city’s gas department.
“They (the city) provide uniforms, everything they need,” said Hargis. “Then we have the students who have applied for full-time positions that have graduated this year. Hopefully, Somerset Community College will pick this up as a post-secondary position so students will be able to go on and further their education, get an associate degree in it.”
Hargis noted that numerous local businesses and agencies have donated valuable equipment for use in the lab, which includes both gas and compressed air as a safer substitute at certain times.
The program started in November and has lasted through two trimesters so far, with a high mark of 23 students involved in the program.
“I enjoy it. It’s very informative,” said junior Sean Ross. “Natural gas is pretty neat. It’s a good way to save. It’s cheaper than gasoline and more efficient.”
Matt Tackett, executive director of the Kentucky Gas Association, is excited with what’s being done at ATC and proud that a Bluegrass State school is leading the way to a future that burns brighter.
“I think (the school) ought to be applauded for their forward-thinking and what they’re doing for their students here to provide career-readiness education in what is a really rapidly growing sector of the economy,” said Tackett. “Natural gas is growing and will become more and more of a factor in energy. These are great jobs that these students will have access to because of what they’re doing here at the school.”
Chris Harris is a staff writer for the Commonwealth Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.