NEW IBERIA, La.—In her pink-and-grey sweatshirt and fuzzy boots, Courtney Long picks a drill bit off a table in her classroom at South Louisiana Community College's campus in New Iberia.
She points out how it's much heavier than it looks and much smaller than some bits found on rigs.
Long, 25, recently visited a rig in Morgan City with her classmates. She is one of four women in SLCC's oil and gas production technology program this semester.
Another woman completed the one-year program last summer, earning a technical diploma in a traditionally male-dominated industry.
Women make up about one-fifth (22 percent) of employees in the oil and gas industry, according to a 2017 report from The Boston Consulting Group.
That's low compared to other major industries like finance (39 percent of employees are women) and health and social work (60 percent), according to the report. Only construction ranked lower than oil and gas with 11 percent.
The cohort at SLCC falls in line with those figures. Four of the 19 students that make up Long's class, or 21 percent, are women.
Current student Lacey Graves, 26, said she chose to quit her job and pursue this career full-time for two reasons.
"In this career field, you can make a lot of money, and partially because it's not a traditional job for females," Graves said. "I have a 2-year-old daughter. I want to show her she can do whatever she wants. You don't have to stick to traditionally female jobs."
She's from Loreauville and surrounded by the oil and gas industry, a common theme for students in this program.
Long's father, grandfather, uncles and brother have all worked or still work in the industry. She's seen them face layoffs and the ups and downs of such a career.
Now, with a semester and a certification under her belt, she enjoys being able to jump into conversations at home she might have been left out of before.
"These are certifications that (some) people in the oil field don't have," Long said.
Graves is hoping for that edge in the traditionally male-dominated world of oil and gas.
"I feel like if we would go apply for a job I feel they would be more likely to hire a man," Graves said. "So I would think we need to have that proof—that proof that I'm worthy."
As a single parent, Long's primary motivation was finding a job that would provide for her and her son.
"For me, I have a lot of family members in it," Long said. "I saw what it did for them. I'm a single parent. My perspective was I had to make the money to provide for our lifestyle."
So she drives 45 minutes from Cecilia to campus every weekday for four hours of class, and she works as a bartender on the weekend.
Darell Lastrapes, 20, also commutes about 45 minutes for classes. She took a version of this class as a high-schooler in Opelousas and decided to buck the family trend and enter this field rather than nondestructive testing (or NDT).
"I was going to do NDT, but I had already started this and thought 'Why not finish?'" Lastrapes said.
Leanna Simoneaud, 18, came to SLCC straight from high school. Her father, too, worked in the oil field, and the Delcambre native was itching for something hands-on. Plus, she's willing to travel—anywhere.
These four started the program in August and quickly became like a family, they said.
Simoneaud said it was a nice surprise to find other women in their class. They said it made them more comfortable.
"I'll ask Lacey for help before one of the guys," Long said, and all of them laughed. She said the guys answer but don't always explain it in-depth. " I'm glad there are four of us."
The four of them will graduate in July with technical diplomas in oil and gas production technology.
The program is three consecutive semesters and designed to take novices, lead instructor Aaron Ward said, and prepare them for jobs such as production operator, flood hand, basic compliance officer and more.
"Most start out making roughly $50,000 a year," Ward said, finding jobs on oil rigs or chemical plants.
It's no secret that the job market for oil and gas ebbs and flows, and right now, Ward admits, is more of an ebb.
"The best time to educate yourself is when the price (of oil) is low," Ward said. "Companies are investing. So when the market and price pick back up, we're ready."
If they don't go straight to work, they could continue at SLCC to get five more general education courses for an associate's degree in technical studies.