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Can West Virginia’s pipeline jobs keep youth in the state?

There are thousands of jobs in the oil and gas industry in West Virginia and the recent growth in natural gas pipeline construction is giving young West Virginians economic incentive to stay in the state. But as Student Reporting Labs' Alia King reports, some are concerned the boom will eventually come to an end, leaving young people without lasting opportunities.

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  • Alia King:

    There are hundreds of miles of pipeline crossing the rugged mountains of West Virginia, carrying natural gas to power plants, businesses and homes all across the country. For some young people, pipeline related jobs are a rare opportunity to stay in the state and make a living.

    Leah Weeder is a welding student at Monongalia County Technical Education Center in Morgantown. Do you plan on staying in West Virginia after graduation?

  • Leah Weeder:

    I do plan on staying in West Virginia. It's always going to be home. I want to work on the pipeline because I guess I've always liked to be outside. And it's really good money.

  • Alia King:

    West Virginia led the nation with a 14.4% increase in new construction jobs – more than 4,000 – between January 2017 and January 2018, according to the General Contractors of America. Much of the job growth is attributed to pipeline projects.

    Brittany Moody is the lead engineer on the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, known as the ACP, a 600 mile project that goes through West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina. According to Moody, the ACP has created over 4000 construction jobs.

  • Brittany Moody:

    I have eight construction spreads. Each spread is made up of approximately 500 to 800 employees. So when they come to the area, you know that's a pretty big impact especially in these little tiny towns that we're used to being in.

  • Alia King:

    Many of the workers on the ACP grew up in West Virginia, but the increase in new jobs has brought in workers from out of state as well.

    Cody Hibbard lives in Arkansas but has been jumping between welding gigs across the country since he left the naval academy at age 19. Several months ago, he drove to Buckhannon, West Virginia in his truck and camper to work on the ACP.

  • Cody Hibbard:

    The wage is definitely liveable. It's a great way to make a living.

  • Alia King:

    Cody earns $5600 per week in addition to benefits.

  • Cody Hibbard:

    A lot of us stay in it for the money.

  • Alia King:

    How many young people are working on the pipeline with you?

  • Cody Hibbard:

    There are quite a few young people on the pipeline. We even had a 17 year old on another job. The more and more we get work, the more young people we bring in.

  • Alia King:

    Joshua Hall is a professor of economics at West Virginia University. He says pipeline construction has stimulated the state's economy.

  • Joshua Hall:

    Undoubtedly there's real benefits from the shale gas boom. Some counties have doubled their property tax revenues and that helps all citizens of the state. If you're a typical high school student like my son, there's probably aspects of education you're not satisfied with and then you see 25 to 30 dollars an hour in wages. It kind of seems like a no-brainer. Maybe I'll do it…

  • Alia King:

    But he warns the boom might not last.

  • Joshua Hall:

    I think the biggest draw back that the shale gas boom had is it is a lure for a high school graduate to go into that industry which might be temporary instead of going to college.

  • Alia King:

    ACP manager, Brittany Moody, admits that only a small number of jobs will remain once construction is completed.

  • Brittany Moody:

    I'm thinking in the low 20s range of permanent employees. We'll have permanent employees at all the compressor stations and then we assign certain employees to walk the lines and to maintain and do the interval walking So there's not that many permanent jobs that come out of it.

  • Alia King:

    Leah isn't concerned that pipeline construction jobs are short-term.

  • Leah Weeder:

    I come from a family that do those types of jobs and often times if it's a big enough job you can be there from two to five years or even seven years to work on it.

  • Alia King:

    But Professor Hall is concerned that West Virginia is not investing in lasting opportunities for young graduates in the non-technical fields.

  • Joshua Hall:

    The long term effects of these short term construction jobs and the natural gas industry is that we might be encouraging students to not build the skills that they might need for our future workforce.

  • Alia King:

    What risks does a college graduate take to stay in the state?

  • Joshua Hall:

    The number one issue facing a young college graduate who decides to stay in the state is upward mobility. We don't have a lot of large corporations to provide a clear pathway to advancement. And we are a rural, very isolated state.

  • Alia King:

    Hannah Criser is a senior at University High School in Morgantown. She is staying in state to study political science but is unsure what will happen after graduating college.

  • Hannah Criser:

    I'm not sure if I would have job security for what I'm interested in. I think a lot of people in wv feel the same way. WV is one of the only states that's actively losing population.

  • Alia King:

    What does opportunity mean to you?

  • Hannah Criser:

    Opportunity means that if I have desires and passions I can explore those wholeheartedly 110%, and I can give West Virginia my all. But I can't do that right now. And opportunity in West Virginia is severely lacking in that sense.

  • Alia King:

    Even pipeline workers from out of state, such as Cody Hibbard, aren't sure how long they will be able to stick around.

  • Cody Hibbard:

    I don't know if I'll stay in West Virginia. Really depends on where our work is at. The state is a great state. I enjoyed working here. The people were great. I've been to Texas, to South Dakota, to Pennsylvania. Like I said, I'd like to stay here, just depends where the work's at.

  • Alia King:

    But the future of pipeline jobs is also affected by environmental regulation. In December, a federal appeals court rejected permits for the ACP to cross two national forests and the Appalachian trail. With construction stalled, project managers were forced to lay off or delay hiring more than 4500 workers. Like most young people looking for work, they will move to wherever the jobs are, in or out of state.

    For PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs, I'm Alia King in Morgantown, West Virginia.

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