WHEELING - Though they had high hopes upon starting the Arrowsmith Fabrication business last year, Michael Siebieda and Brett Francis were not quite sure what to expect as they welded their way into the Marcellus Shale rush.
One year later, the company has five full-time employees and room for plenty more at the once-vacant building at the corner of 42nd and Wood streets in South Wheeling.
"We actually had nine full-time people over the summer, but the work is slowing down now in the colder months," said Siebieda. "But the main thing is we made it through the first year. We have people employed and the bills are being paid."
GROWING — Brian Groux, a welder at Arrowsmith Fabrication in South Wheeling, performs some welding inside the shop on Wood Street. The truck is part of Arrowsmith’s business that allows workers to respond to breakdowns at natural gas industry sites. -- Casey Junkins
"You have to look at this over the long-term, over the next five years or so. The future opportunities for growth look unbelievable," Siebieda said.
The Wheeling residents were so confident in the their ability to perform the specialized work associated with the natural gas industry that they quit secure jobs to start their own business in South Wheeling. One year later, Francis and Siebieda believe they made the right choice.
"There is so much work out there. We feel good about the prospect of being able to get people good jobs working for these gas companies," Francis said.
In the burgeoning natural gas industry, local companies such as Arrowsmith can perform work at drilling sites, pipeline sites or processing plants.
Siebieda and Francis have a "master service agreement" with Williams Energy, a fact confirmed by Williams spokesman Scott Carney.
"Williams gives us the opportunity to quote work for them," Siebieda said. "We don't always get that work, but they give us a shot. And we do a lot of work for them. We have done some maintenance work at Fort Beeler and at Moundsville. We know a lot of the guys up at Fort Beeler."
The Arrowsmith shop also recently purchased a truck that allows them to transport their welding equipment, which allows them to respond when companies call for quick repairs. The shop is an example of one of the many service businesses that can be created in the local area because the natural gas and oil extraction is taking place.
Siebieda and Francis believe they are just one example of how the Marcellus and Utica shale rush can help revitalize the Ohio Valley.
"The companies would hire more local people, but the skill set is not there right now," said Siebieda. "This is not just your typical plate welding. This is highly skilled, complex work that takes time to learn."
Paul Huffman, welding instructor at Belmont College, said there is a significant difference between what he termed traditional "pipe welding" and "pipeline welding," which is used for natural gas pipelines. Just because one is trained to weld pipe together does not mean he or she is qualified to work on a pipeline, he said.
"It is good to see that Belmont College and West Virginia Northern Community College are working to help people develop this skill set," Siebieda said. "Downhill pipeline welders are hard to find."
In the meantime, Siebieda and Francis said they will continue pressing to get more work in the natural gas business, but will also do work for other local companies.
"It is one thing to be able to weld - it is another thing to run your own business," Siebieda admitted. "But we are growing little by little, and learning our way through it. We see a very bright future here."