UACCM announces plans for Petroleum Technology Program

The University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton has announced that its petroleum technology program will be placed on Inactive status as soon as the current students are given the opportunity to graduate from the program.

The decision comes on the heels of an announcement by Southwestern Energy that the natural gas industry leader would lay off 1,100 employees, including 600 throughout its Fayetteville Shale operations in Arkansas. At this time, no new students will be admitted into the UACCM program.

Many of the natural gas companies as well as service and support companies conducting operations in the area have scaled back or discontinued their operations in response to an ongoing drop in the price of natural gas. This comes a decade after a surge in oil exploration and drilling operations created a host of new jobs and also expanded educational opportunities throughout the area.

UACCM’s Associate of Applied Science degree in petroleum technology is the only one of its kind in the state and one of only a handful throughout the nation that educates students in the fields of drilling, gathering and field operations. UACCM launched the program during the fall 2006 semester.

The curriculum was developed in consultation with representatives from the oil and gas industry including Houston-based Southwestern Energy Company and its wholly-owned subsidiary SEECO, Inc.

In 2006, Southwestern Energy announced a three-year pledge totaling $200,000 to UACCM to assist in the development of the program.

The driving force of the partnership between Southwestern Energy Company and UACCM was increased natural gas production in the Fayetteville Shale Play, an area of natural gas drilling, gathering and field operations in Franklin, Conway, Van Buren, Cleburne and Faulkner counties. Geologists and engineers discovered this geologic structure located within the Arkoma Basin of eastern Oklahoma and north central and western Arkansas contained one of the largest supplies of natural gas in the United States.  

The collaboration between the college and representatives of the oil and gas industry helped lead to significant economic growth for the area.

Once the petroleum technology department was established, the plan of study was tailored specifically for the needs of the companies doing business in the Fayetteville Shale Play. The college established an advisory committee made up of representatives from various natural gas drilling and production companies as well as service and support businesses working in the play. Advisory committees provide curriculum design guidance and equipment donations to ensure the programs remain relevant and up-to-date with industry changes.

Throughout the years, enrollment grew from 30 students in its first semester to almost 200 students per semester at its peak. Through December 2015, a total of 1,142 certificates and degrees were awarded to 462 individual students.

In 2006, a group of individuals representing companies working in the Fayetteville Shale formed the Fayetteville Shale Scholarship Fund (FSSF), a nonprofit organization whose mission was to encourage and enable individuals to pursue educational opportunities and prepare for careers in the Arkansas oil and gas industry. The FSSF organization held fundraisers throughout the years, resulting in donations of $635,000 for student scholarship awards and $215,500 to the UACCM Give Meaning campaign. During that period, 640 scholarships were awarded.

“We appreciate the Fayetteville Shale Scholarship Fund Board’s continuing support of our students and the petroleum program throughout the years, and their contributions have been invaluable,” said UACCM Chancellor Dr. Larry Davis. “The donations to our Give Meaning campaign will have a lasting impact as we break ground on the Workforce Training Center this spring.”

There are currently 58 students enrolled in the petroleum technology program, of which 23 are on schedule to graduate in May. The other 35 students will be given the opportunity to take the remaining required courses needed to complete the Associate of Applied Science degree, or they may change their major and pursue a new plan of study in another program.  

UACCM representatives recently met with the FSSF Board regarding revised criteria for scholarship recipients, and expanded the eligibility criteria. The petroleum students remaining in the program who are currently receiving FSSF scholarships will remain eligible for the scholarships provided they continue to meet the criteria.

There will be two additional scholarships available. The FSSF dislocated workers tuition scholarship is $500 per semester and requires documentation of an individual being displaced from a job directly related to the Arkansas oil and gas industry within the past 12 months. Students must enroll in a minimum of nine semester credit hours in a technical career field or transfer field that leads to a certificate or associate degree which will enhance an individual’s future employment opportunities.

The FSSF dislocated workers short-term training scholarship is also available to those who can show documentation that they have been displaced from a job directly related to the Arkansas oil and gas industry within the past 12 months. Individuals must enroll in a short-term workforce training program at UACCM that leads to a certificate of completion and enhances future employment opportunities. This scholarship may be awarded for up to two short-term training programs with a maximum award amount of $500 per training.

Vice Chancellor for Academic Services Diana Arn remarked, “In collaboration with Southwestern Energy and other companies, UACCM met a labor market need, trained a skilled workforce, and now we have to adapt as industry needs change.” Arn stated that the college “has been proud to be part of an endeavor that has shown tremendous benefits for the citizens of Conway County and surrounding communities,” and she pledged the college’s commitment to helping those impacted by the latest circumstances. According to the Arkansas Department of Higher Education guidelines, a program placed on inactive status can be reactivated during a five-year period if conditions change. An industry reversal in job availability, corporate demand or employment projections could support reactivation, allowing UACCM to commence classes in the program.

As a two-year community college, UACCM has been able to respond to changing needs of business and industry in a quick and efficient manner. Throughout the years, UACCM reacted when the community faced a crisis and met the challenge of retraining individuals left without a job after the loss of an industry, as well as business downsizing.