November 7, 2006

Texas State Technical College Robot Program Offers Bright Future for Students

By Mike Copeland, Waco Tribune-Herald, Texas

Nov. 5--Alin Gorgan, of Axtell, had a good job as a union electrician making $22.30 an hour.

But something about a new course at Texas State Technical College pulled him in and wouldn't let go.

"I wanted to broaden my horizon," said Gorgan, 29, who is married and has two little girls.

So he joined 13 others in learning how to use a Remote Operated Vehicle -- a device that can be lowered thousands of feet below the sea's surface to work on oil and gas equipment.

After eight weeks of intensive training, the 14 graduates received their certificates Thursday at TSTC.

Gorgan will visit Houston this week for job interviews. He said he probably can make $1,200 to $1,500 a week to start.

"I'll try to keep living here," Gorgan said.

He said oil companies typically let workers on ocean rigs work two or three weeks before taking off an equal amount of time. He can travel back home to Central Texas between shifts.

The subsea robotics program is part of TSTC's goal to offer short, training-intensive programs that meet specific employer needs, said Rob Wolaver, associate vice president of workforce development at TSTC.

"These are non-degree, skill-specific programs that make students quickly employable," Wolaver said. "They can go to work as soon as they're finished."

Lane Morehead, recruiting manager for RDL Energy Services in Alvin, Texas, attended Thursday's ceremony to meet the students and collect resumes.

"I hope to be hiring out of this class, and I'll be down here every time they have a graduating class," said Morehead, who provides people for about 20 companies.

He graduated from a similar class in Houston and knows what the students at TSTC have learned. So many people were traveling to Houston to take the course that TSTC-Waco president Elton Stuckly successfully lobbied to have the class moved to Waco so it would be more centrally located.

Lou Cranek, who works with TSTC to ensure that subsea robotics students learn what the industry needs, said qualified people can make $55,000 a year starting out, working their way up to $110,000 a year in three years.

Working overseas can prove even more lucrative.

"I have a friend who worked 90 days straight in the Black Sea making $550 a day. You do the math," said David Golliheair, coordinator for the subsea robotics training center at TSTC.

But the hours and conditions can be trying, which is why TSTC includes survival training in its course. Those operating the subsea robots can find themselves on boats in rough seas.

When on duty, workers work at least 12 hours a day, Golliheair said. Overtime piles up quickly.

Companies give workers two or three weeks off to recharge their batteries, Golliheair said, but many are hurting so badly for qualified help, they gladly allow workers to come back to work sooner if they are up to the task.

David Rodgers, 39, a Canadian from Newfoundland, is among those just completing TSTC's first subsea course.

"The East Coast and Canada are crying out for people with (Remote Operated Vehicle) training," said Rodgers, an architectural draftsman by trade. "I got on the Internet and found this school. It was one of only three places in the world I could find that offered this type of training."

Rodgers said the eight-week course was challenging, "but the toughest thing about my experience was moving here."

He spent $6,950 to take the course and lived on campus. He estimates he spent a total of $10,000 for the experience.

But he believes it was worth it.

"I met a lot of good people, and my accommodations were good. The college itself is exceptional," said Rodgers, adding he's "99 percent sure I'll end up with an oil company."

Daniel Gallagher, 39, of Austin, is a Navy veteran who took the course because he was laid off from IBM. He hopes to make $2,000 a week, probably working for an oil company.

Jason Perkins, 25, traveled to Waco from Washington state to take the course. He knows that most of his fellow students see themselves working offshore for oil companies, but he believes he can find a job in other fields -- maybe the nuclear industry -- where robots handle materials on land or in space.

James Galvez, 18, a Waco native who has lived in several places around Texas, said he first thought about attending TSTC to become an aviation mechanic. But he heard about the subsea program and knew he had to enroll.

"It was extremely intense. They filled up my brain," Galvez said, laughing about the eight weeks of training that typically last eight hours a day. "But this is a really good career opportunity, and it also sounded like fun."

"Some students knew the basics of Remote Operated Vehicles; some had no clue," Golliheair said. "But the class did real well, and I'm proud of them."

They studied hydraulics, electronics, fiber optics and, of course, survival training. They even had to make a Remote Operated Vehicle and a control panel for it.

"Oh, they did an outstanding job. I loved the design. It was the best I've ever had built out of 60-something classes," counting those in Houston, said Golliheair.

ROVs can be as small as a football or as large as a van. Smaller ones typically are equipped with lights and cameras for inspections. Bigger ones actually perform tasks.

Robots are lowered from a boat into the water by cable. At a certain depth, the vehicle flies from its cage while still attached to a tether, also called an umbilical cord.

A person controls its actions by sending instructions via fiber-optic cable and watching its movements on a monitor.


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