Oil industry seeks replacements for aging work force

Looking for a few good (wo)men

Posted: Thursday, May 18, 2000

The average age of British Petroleum employees is 50, and many of them are looking at retirement. In an effort to renew its work force, the company has joined with several University of Alaska campuses to train skilled employees.

Katherine Farnham, BP's director for Alaska hire, spoke about work force renewal, at the weekly Kenai Chamber of Commerce lunch on Wednesday. She was joined by Kenai Peninsula College director Ginger Steffy.

"We're getting older in the state and people are staying here longer," Farnham said. "But workers are approaching retirement."

With Prudhoe Bay in decline, Farnham said, there is the perception that the oil companies are, too.

"People think we're hobbling along on a cane, but that is far from the truth," she said. "There are lots and lots of opportunities on the North Slope, National Petroleum Reserve and someday to the east in ANWR. There's lots of oil left, and we plan to work hard to develop it."

The program that BP, KPC and other industry groups are involved in is called the Alaska Process Industry Career Consortium. They hope to recruit and train employees in skills necessary to build and operate oil and gas field production modules.

"There are 50 to 500 job opportunities available in the next five years," Farnham said. "And they have average starting salaries between $40,000 and $70,000 a year."

Through APICC, as the consortium is known, the oil industry hopes to attract employees by letting them know of career opportunities from a young age, by sponsoring classroom presentations in middle school and internships for high schoolers.

Farnham said industry must make 1,000 students aware of the potential jobs just to get three who go on to pursue a career in the field.

"We're competing with people who want to be Web masters or lawyers," she said.

Farnham said the program is trying to reach out to rural Alaska students and others.

"We are very pleased to attract less traditional employees with this program," she said. "We are reaching women, minorities and Natives."

She gave the example of a mother and daughter from the Interior who are going through the program and soon will be working for BP.

To support the programs, Farnham said, BP has donated $12,000 to 10 schools to facilitate the job training program and has plans to fund 10 more schools every year.

She said the company has a commitment to steadily recruit 20 new college graduates a year.

"You can't make plans for the next 20 years based on today's oil price," she said. "Many people wish we could fill more jobs now."

However, Steffy cautioned against taking students too early.

"I made them promise they will not hire students who have not graduated yet," Steffy said. "If they start taking my students before they graduate, we're going to have problems."

Steffy said the programs KPC and the other campuses are offering will give graduates skills applicable to industries outside of oil and gas production.

"We will give the students a set of skills that will give them maximum flexibility," Steffy said.

She said the university system is trying to develop a curriculum common to local campuses around the state so students who move from one town to another can pick up their studies right where they left off.

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