Drilling or a College Diploma?

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In just a few weeks, students all over our area will put on their caps and gowns and graduate from high school.

Students will decide if they want to go to college or go right into the workforce. In parts of our area, an increasing number of high school seniors are choosing work in the natural gas industry over going to college.

The United States Department of Labor says that last year, two out of every three high school graduates went on to some form of higher education. But in parts of Northeastern and Central Pennsylvania, a growing number of high school seniors are going right to work in the natural gas industry, cashing big paychecks instead of racking up student loan debt.

One month from now, seniors at Jersey Shore Area High School will graduate. School officials say that out of the 200-or-so graduates, ten plan to go right into the natural gas industry. That number includes Kory Buttorff.

"The money. The money is there and it's real big right now around here," Buttorff said.

Kory is one of 60 students at Jersey Shore Area High School who are part of the school's manufacturing program. Teacher Brent Wheeland prepares students for the workforce.

"The job market has gone from everybody sending their kids to school for a four-year degree. With Marcellus Shale changing, a lot of industry wants to hire from within, start them out from the bottom and bring them up through," Wheeland said.

According to a report by Penn State University, Pennsylvania is on track to have 250,000 jobs in the natural gas industry by the year 2020.

"I think it's a great opportunity for the kids because they can make $14-18 an hour salary and work 60-80 hours a week. They make a good paycheck and they learn what they have to do to contribute to society," Wheeland said.

"You can bank all that money that you would be paying back for college loans and everything," Buttorff said.

The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education reports that the average tuition for one year at a state university is $17,000. Compare that to figures from the PA Department of Labor and Industry, showing that a natural gas worker in Pennsylvania earns an average salary of $73,000.

"I make outrageous money," Jeremiah Paucke said.

Jeremiah Paucke is 20 years old, and works as a mechanic at Trican Well Service in Mill Hall. He graduated from Jersey Shore Area High School. He considered college, but decided to work in the Marcellus Shale industry right away.

"I was going to be 2,000 miles from home living with that student debt that I didn't want. I figured, I've always been a worker, so why not just take it and run with it? It actually came out to be a pretty successful career for me," Paucke said.

But for hundreds of thousands of people, including the more than 200 recent graduates of Lycoming College in Williamsport, having a college degree is worth the debt.

"I'm definitely an advocate for going to college," Maryjo Campana said.

Maryjo Campana is Director of Career Services at Lycoming College. She says many people who go to work in the natural gas industry need a college degree. Campana also believes college graduates are better off in the long-run.

"Those students with a bachelor`s degree obviously make more than those with a high school diploma. Those with a professional degree make more than those with a bachelor`s degree," said Campana.

Campana cited a recent study done by Georgetown University, which predicts that within five years, 63% of the available jobs will require a college degree or some other kind of training after high school.

All in all, it's good to have options. Those are only two choices for high school graduates. Many decide to go into the military or take other jobs.