Fast-track program launched for Alberta power engineers

Training skilled immigrants for ‘most in-demand occupation’ in oilsands
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 02/25/2013

Energy services company Tervita is always looking for new avenues to fill its talent pipeline. For the past few years, it has partnered with the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society (CCIS)’s Oil and Gas Training Programs to hire skilled immigrants who are graduating from the fast-tracked drilling and service rig programs.

“We really need to increase the supply, so one natural place to look would be new immigrants,” said Mike Williams, vice-president of corporate services at 3,400-employee Tervita in Calgary.

“Anything that is happening to help equip new people into Canada with the skills and knowledge we need as an employer is going to help alleviate the problem.”

Now, Tervita can also fill its open positions for power engineers through CCIS’s new power engineering training program, which launched Jan. 28.

The fast-track program will train power engineers in 37 weeks.

“We are significantly shortening the length of time it usually takes to train power engineers by utilizing the technical background of internationally trained immigrants and new Canadians who are struggling to find sustainable employment,” said Bob Khan, director of operations at CCIS’s Oil and Gas Training Programs.

The industry-driven pilot project is supported by several Alberta companies that are facing substantial shortages of power engineers, also known as steam-ticket operators. Process operators, refinery operators, gas plant operators and boiler hands all fall under this category as well.

Between 2012 and 2021, the oilsands industry will need to hire a minimum of 3,441 power engineers — or almost 100 per cent of 2011 employment levels — to support industry growth and address age-related attrition, according to the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada. This does not include turnover within the occupation.

While there is high demand for power engineers in the oilsands, they are also needed in schools, hospitals, hotels, shopping malls, breweries, power generation plants and waste management plants, said Ana Hoepfner, business analyst at CCIS’ Oil and Gas Training Programs.

“Power engineers are the most in-demand occupation in the oilsands. When we spoke to employers, some of them have told us they need to hire about a thousand,” she said.

“(The shortage) was looming for the last 10 years but it’s already here and that’s where the fact that these guys will get a fast-track program is really important — they are needed now.”

While hundreds of candidates applied for the pilot program, only 16 could be chosen, said Hoepfner. The class includes people from all over the world including the Philippines, Poland, Ukraine, Pakistan, Cameroon, Mexico, China, Nigeria, India and Ecuador.

The applicants were chosen for their aptitude and competence in abstract reasoning, math, chemistry and physics, technical and mechanical overseas experience, and excellent English communication skills.

“Some of them might have worked as operators in their country of origin, some of them might have been science teachers or mechanical engineers or have strong aptitudes that enable them to go through the material very quickly,” said Hoepfner.

Program participants will receive intensive, theoretical groundwork and accrue lab hours to prepare them for their accreditation exam.

“The core material is the same as any power engineer would take — they are just going to be taking it at a faster track,” said Les Anderson, president of the Building Operators Association of Calgary. “They will come out certified by SAIT (the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology), which is one of the most respected educational facilities… and their graduates are highly desired.”

And a fast-track program doesn’t make it any less credible than the full version.

“If we were hiring a power engineer, this gives the right qualifications for the people that we would be looking to hire, and the same would be said of any other energy services or oil producer,” said Williams.

Graduates will receive a 4th Class Power Engineering Certificate from the Alberta Boilers Safety Association.

The power engineering program also has a strong focus on occupational health and safety, and participants will receive several safety certificates upon completion.

“Health and safety is an integral part of all our training programs because (employers) see it as a paramount importance, especially to oil and gas industry employers,” said Hoepfner. “(The safety training) is really attractive to employers. It provides them with the assurance that these guys have everything.”

But technical skills won’t be enough for these participants to be hired.

“Equally as important as the technical skill is the fit of the employee to the values of the company and the norms of the company, so (that means) people who work well in teams, people who show initiative, people who can communicate effectively,” said Williams.

To address this need, the program provides training around some softer skills including teamwork, work ethic, communication and integration.

“They need a willingness to learn and work within a team concept, which is a Canadian way of doing things,” said Anderson. “They come with a heritage that may not fit into the Canadian atmosphere right away and they will need to know the (soft skills).”

There are currently 10 employers from across Alberta partnering with the power engineering program. They come from various industries including oil and gas, health care and energy services, said Hoepfner.

There is no cost to partnering employers; instead, they support the program through the involvement of program processes, including selecting successful candidates for the program, seminars, field trips, mentoring and guest speaking engagements, she said.

Tervita executives are often guest speakers for the drilling program.

“We talk about the industry, what the requirements are, our company and what an individual will need to possess to be successful here. It helps candidates ensure they focus their training in the right way,” said Williams.

“It helps to ensure that individuals are relevant for the company and the role.”

These types of fast-track programs are very popular among employers — CCIS already has four in place and is in the process of developing three more.

“(Employers) will help out, support, sponsor, do whatever they can to fulfill their required operators for their facilities so if anyone comes up with a good way of gathering and guaranteeing an operator, they’re going to jump at it with gusto,” said Anderson.

This type of industry-driven approach is very beneficial to employers because they partner with the educational institution to co-develop the curriculum.

“Obviously the more relevant we can make the curriculum and the training that these individuals are given, the more directly applicable they are going to be to the roles we have,” said Williams. “A customized program equals a customized employee.”

Another major benefit is that participating employers have an advantage in recruiting graduates from the program.

“It does help them jump to the front of the queue in terms of organizations these guys would look at to come and work for,” said Williams. “And in a competitive recruiting world, that’s pretty important.”

Retention rates are also “way higher” among the immigrants who participate in these programs, said Hoepfner.

“For the most part, these people have struggled for years to find an employer who will talk to them and whoever gives them that first opportunity, they will stick with it, they will give their best and they will stay longer.”

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