Company Sparks Realization of Utica Shale Welding Lab

SALINEVILLE, Ohio – Brandon Eastek, a senior at Utica Shale Academy, has been running large equipment like tractors and skid loaders since he was small.

Now he is gaining additional training and, most importantly, the credentials and certifications he needs, which go along with the experience he gained helping his grandparents, parents and uncle in their businesses.

The Utica Shale Academy gave him a chance to explore new things and expand his skills.

“I did a little bit of welding, operating, diesel tech, electrical, hydraulics, pneumatics. I like to do it all. I like to learn it all,” Eastek said.

Now he and his fellow students will get to learn metal joining skills with the Utica Shale Academy’s addition of the outdoor Ascent Resources Welding Lab, which officially opened Tuesday at the school.

Brandon Eastek is a senior at Utica Shale Academy.

Superintendent William Watson said students at the school have been training to weld, but when they got jobs, many were “flabbergasted” to learn they were being expected to weld in the cold and the heat.

“Sometimes in Ohio the temperature changes, so we were really just trying to get them ready for the career they feel they want,” said Watson, adding that the lab will help them know what to expect and be successful.

The students have been practicing on a virtual welding simulator, but now they will get a chance to make V-joints, T-joints and others while working outside in the elements. The simulator let them practice before they had to worry about the hot sparks and noise from a real welder.

“Welding is about every one of your senses,” Eastek said. “You have to listen to that weld and listen to how it’s reacting … listen to it and make sure it sounds like you’re cooking eggs when you first dump them in. … So you have to really listen to it. You have to watch, and you have to really pay attention to everything going on.”

Coming from Leetonia, Eastek loved the opportunity that the Utica Shale Academy gave him to get outside a classroom, where he sometimes struggled to concentrate and get the good grades he had. He believes all the skills he is learning at the school can be the “backbone” he can fall back on as he pursues another goal to be an electrical or mechanical engineer.

The Utica Shale Academy already had the welding lab in the planning phases when it learned two years ago its state funding was going to be cut.

“When that happened, Ascent Resources gave a call the next day and said, ‘How can we help?’” Watson said.

Amanda Finn, director of external affairs at Ascent Resources, credited the CEO of Ascent with following up after seeing an article in a newspaper detailing the loss of needed money for Utica Shale Academy through the state funding formula. Finn said he suggested they needed to help, so she reached out to Watson.

The project was $75,000 short, and Ascent stepped up to fill that gap.

Watson called the Ascent Resources Welding Lab the “Cadillac” of several projects the school has been trying to complete and noted the students can gain nine credentials through the welding lab.

Additionally, the school has opened the Timothy Ginther Industrial Maintenance Hub, where students are learning robotics, AC/DC electricity, pneumatics and hydraulics. About 48 credentials can be obtained in that lab.

The outdoor welding lab, about a $450,000 investment, will allow the school to train 100 students each year, and there are plans to eventually expand to an indoor space.

Nick Woods is an instructor at Utica Shale Academy.

Watson has little doubt those students completing the credentials will be able to find a job with a wage that can support a family.

“The gap we’re seeing is huge,” Watson said. “Right now, it’s not a scenario of if I can place kids – it’s how many employers are going to be mad that all of our students are placed. I wish that wasn’t a problem, but it is. Right now, I don’t think the young men and women realize the golden opportunity that they really have. But to come out at 18 years old and to have a career, and not just a job, is a blessing, especially in our community.”

David Johnson, CEO of Summitville Tiles, said he agrees that employers need the students coming through the Utica Shale Academy. His business has hired at least 20, and he congratulated the school on the opening of another opportunity for students to gain skills.

“We have a labor shortage in this area,” Johnson said. “Every company that I know is having difficulty hiring quality employees.”

Ascent Resources is an exploration and production company, drilling for natural gas and oil. Although it does not hire welders directly, the company works with many subcontractors who need a lot of welders and have struggled at times to find the people they need.

“There’s a whole student staff over here it looks like,” Finn said, pointing to Utica students using the bays. “We’re happy that all of these students are getting an opportunity to be part of such a great industry.”

Whether they choose to work for Ascent, which is headquartered in Oklahoma and has projects right now in counties south of Columbiana County, or choose to relocate, Finn said there are multiple opportunities with plays in the gas and oil industry across the country.

Pictured at top: From left are Kelly Cottle, production assistant at Ascent Resources; Greg McCutcheon, security coordinator at Ascent Resources; Steven Feisal, director of ESG at Ascent Resources; Chris Benton, vice president of finance and investment relations at Ascent Resources; Bob Kelly, senior vice president of Ascent Resources; Carter Hill, dean of students at Utica Shale Academy; Amanda Finn, director of external affairs at Ascent Resources; Michelle Bender, accounting controller at Ascent Resources; Brent Riggle, external affairs coordinator at Ascent Resources; and William Watson, superintendent at Utica Shale Academy.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.