By Rick Hiduk
Cabot Oil & Gas field operator Ben Whitaker was one of the first employees to start his career with the company via an internship through the Lackawanna College School of Petroleum and Natural Gas. Now, three years into his career, and recently promoted to production foreman, he has found financial security and expects to retire from Cabot. He credits both the company and college for a unique relationship that prepared him for the future and keeps fellow students abreast of evolving technology.
“I encourage anyone who is looking to obtain a great career and get into a really great industry to check out the Lackawanna College School of Petroleum and Natural Gas,” Ben maintains. “It’s something that you won’t regret,”
When he graduated from high school, Ben didn’t have difficulty finding employment. But the jobs he found as a machine operator, construction worker, mechanic and equipment operator at a quarry neither paid well nor were they consistent. Another unexpected lay off led him to what he considered a “dead-end job” that sapped his enthusiasm for working.
“I really wasn’t passionate about what I did. There was no reason to go to work,” Ben recalls. “I was pretty much at a standstill in my life. I had to find something that was going to be here for a long time.”
In the course of his commutes to Montrose for work, he was noticing Cabot trucks and activity throughout the area. His father saw a story about Cabot’s early contributions to the School of Petroleum & Natural Gas, and Ben’s neighbor, Kyle Miller, seemed happy working for Cabot.
At the age of 24, Ben decided to go back to school while working a full-time job at night. Some friends didn’t share Ben’s vision nor did they support his pursuit, but Ben was undeterred. He was immediately impressed with his professors, the field trips to drilling sites, and presentations to the students by industry experts.
“It was great to have people from all the companies come in and talk to us and give us an overview of what they do,” Ben recalls. When Cabot district superintendent BJ Cline talked to the students about the potential for internships with the company, Ben lit up.
“Part of his presentation focused on integrity,” Ben related. “That really hit home with me. I knew that I wanted to work for him.” Ben successfully interviewed with Cline and was taken on as an intern at Cabot while still attending school. The experience was much broader than he expected.
“You can only do so much with a diagram. You need to get your hands dirty, and that’s exactly what we did,” Ben said about the 12-week program that placed him side-by-side with experienced operators. Together, they methodically worked through a syllabus to learn various types of machinery.
Within two months, Ben and his fellow interns were running routes and performing tasks without continuous supervision. Not only was he deemed qualified to work more quickly than he expected, Ben found his new supervisors receptive to his input and suggestions.
Cabot provided all of the materials needed for the internship, including work clothing, tools, vehicles and parts. The internship subsequently opened doors for Ben to secure a family-sustaining job and jump start his career upon graduation from Lackawanna College. He has purchased a house and is engaged to be married.
As a field operator, Ben ran a lease route that covered 31 wells that produced an abundance of gas every week. He was tasked with making sure that everything is pressured up, that there were no leaks, and that everything operated safely.
Now, as a production foreman, Ben oversees a large part of Cabot’s operations in the Marcellus and works with 8 field operators to make sure the natural gas wells are producing as safely and efficiently as possible. He guides the operators when it comes to flow rates, water production, and any regulatory inspections that are needed. Ben notes that he continually works with the other foreman and the Cabot superintendent to brainstorm opportunities to improve safety and efficiency throughout operations.
Site visits involve all the senses, Ben explained, beginning with a visual inspection, followed by listening for incongruities and developing alertness for anything that doesn’t seem right. “Then you check the gauges to make sure that pressure ranges are being sustained. If they are not met, valves will close and we need to inspect that.” As a field operator, he was is one of three daily shifts. The wells are always being monitored by an in-house data system.
“Safety is crucial in this industry, and Cabot provides all the training and equipment that we need. There are a lot of things that can go wrong on a site, and we need to be protected,” said Ben. “There have been numerous changes to our safety procedures, and it’s really cool to be involved with it now because I can influence those changes. I can give feedback on what can be improved.”
Ben still credits his education at Lackawanna College for his ability to better communicate procedures and safety concerns with the drilling completion crews and the engineers in Pittsburgh. “What I learned at the school helps me every day in the field,” he said of relating classroom knowledge to real-life situations. He also mentions that he looks forward to interviewing students at the Lackawanna School of Petroleum and Natural Gas for internship opportunities, bringing his experience with the school and Cabot full circle.
The endowment that Cabot created helps Lackawanna College sustain a technological edge and keeps up with how the industry is constantly evolving in the field. “These changes are optimizing our efficiency and keeping up with the modernization of parts and equipment and maintaining Cabot as a leader in this industry,” Ben remarked. “Seeing the production that’s coming out of these wells, I can see that this is an industry that’s going to be around for generations. It’s a job that I can retire from.”