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New York eyes job prospects in the Marcellus Shale

Drillers live 24/7 just beyond this rig while a well is being drilled. In Pennsylvania, local businesses come to them.
Emma Jacobs
Drillers live 24/7 just beyond this rig while a well is being drilled. In Pennsylvania, local businesses come to them.

Stopped in traffic behind a truck loaded with water pipes, Doug McLinko points out the changes to downtown Troy, Pennsylvania.

“Look at the white trucks, look at the traffic. Troy was never this busy before."

McLinko, who's on the Board of Commissioners for Bradford County, sees all kinds of new economic activity related to natural gas drilling: a booming stone quarry, a planned hotel for traveling workers, in the cabs of the trucks blocking the intersection.

McLinko heads for the trailer office of one person who has found work. Eric Matthews works as a purchasing agent for a company laying pipelines from drill sites in the Marcellus Shale, after two decades spent in construction.

“Two vehicles, two teenage kids, the wife, the mortgage,” Matthews recalls of his time between jobs, “unemployment gets you by long enough to go put gas in the vehicle to find a job.  I went almost 10 months without work. It takes a while to recover.

Matthews says in the last few months, fewer people have stopped by his office looking for work, since unemployment has dropped.

This very rural county has some of the lowest unemployment figures in Pennsylvania, one of only a handful seeing year over year employment growth.

These numbers have attracted attention from job officials across the border in New York State. Terry Stark runs workforce development for Broome and Tioga Counties. She has no specific numbers but she's very interested in what will happen as New York considers shale development. She sees hundreds of job listings going up in Pennsylvania and in nearby Horseheads, New York, which has become a support center for Pennsylvania drilling.

“I’m assuming that as more money comes to a community that there’s a likelihood it’s going to be spent and more businesses would benefit from that additional income,” Stark says.

But when people start to try and quantify what’s happening in Pennsylvania, things get fuzzy. A gas industry funded study of direct and indirect job creation predicted 175,000 new jobs by 2020 (later revised to 200,000). Other estimates looking just at direct employment, have been lower, running in the thousands.

There are more complicating factors: Many jobs go to skilled workers arriving from others states with big drilling industries, like Texas. The jobs that are available, like lifting heavy pipes, aren’t a great fit for older workers used to assembly line jobs.

As policy-makers in New York assess the costs and benefits of drilling wells upstate, Susan Christopherson, an economic geographer at Cornell, sums up the dilemma as a balancing act.

“The desired end goal should be economic development. The counties in the southern tier and Northern Pennsylvania that are experiencing natural gas [growth] should end up with higher standards of living for the residents, more good jobs. They should be able to retain their young people. They should have economies that look better than they do now.”

That’s a hard balance to find on paper. In rural Northeast Pennsylvania, a workforce development official described what he called "the Grand Canyon effect:" you have to see it to believe it. You don’t get the full impact of the numbers until you’ve seen them with your own eyes.

On a rough access road above Troy, Bradford Commissioner Doug McLinko waves over a bright red truck that travels between drilling sites selling lunch to the rig workers.

Buisness is booming so much, the truck takes check cards, and McLinko gets himself lunch. As he drives on, McLinko says that looking at this unlikely new economic activity, the exact numbers of jobs produced don't matter. Even if the job creation figures were halved, it’s still people at work.


Former WRVO/Central New York reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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