EnCana builds talent pipeline into high school classrooms

How one company is building a relationship with future recruits

The world of work maybe galaxies away in the minds of 15-year-olds just starting high school, but one oil-and-gas employer is already working on “building a relationship” with these future recruits.

“Our industry is definitely experiencing a lack of skilled workers and will be in the future,” said Mary Ann Steen, manager of community investment of the Calgary-headquartered EnCana.

“So we’ve made it a high priority to address that issue. We’re working toward educating youth about a career in oil and gas, and to start developing relationships with some of these young people who are going through this particular pilot program. They are potential employees for our company.”

Called the Oil and Gas Production Field Operator Career Pathway program, the pilot project offers high school students an opportunity to earn credits while learning about field production work. Beginning in grade 10, students in participating schools can sign up for a distance learning course supplied by the Calgary-based Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT).

The course is offered as an option, similar to courses in music, language or industrial arts offered in Alberta high schools. Students who progress through the course in all three years will graduate with what’s called a production field operator certificate from SAIT.

With EnCana on as a partner, students will have a chance at getting one of at least six paid internship positions that last through eight weeks in the summer following each year.

“Who hears of getting post-secondary training while you’re in high school? What an opportunity for students,” said Vivian Haland, co-ordinator of the South Eastern Alberta Partners for Youth Career Development and one of the main co-ordinators of the program.

“This program gives them the tools to help them get into things like petroleum engineering technology. A kid can say, ‘Okay, I’m ready to work,’ or he can say, ‘No, I’m going to further my education and go for petroleum engineering technology.’” The point is to allow teens to “test drive” a career but also leave options open for them, said Haland.

Haland, who has set up a similar program to introduce students to jobs in health-service occupations, said the idea for this particular program came up when “we heard of EnCana looking for production operators. So we thought, ‘The industry has a need, let’s meet the need.’ So we sat down and pulled all the players together.”

One of the players is Claude Charrois, a training consultant in the energy department at SAIT. What motivated him to get involved was the hope that high school students will think of SAIT as a post-secondary option after they graduate from high school — “and not as a fallback option because they can’t get into university.”

At Eagle Butte High School in Dunmore, Alta., guidance counsellor Janay Rittinger said she saw more students interested in the program than there is space for.

Some of the students gravitate toward the program because their families work in the oil-and-gas industry and they know that’s what they want to do after school, said Rittinger. Others are interested in a tertiary education in engineering and are looking for a head start. “Some of our kids come from ranching families, so they are looking at this as a second job. And there’s a high demand (for workers) in the Medicine Hat area, so this is something that they can do while still living on the ranch or the farm.”

Out of the 15 students enrolled in the first year of the program at Eagle Butte, six are girls, she added.

Similar programs have been up and running in a variety of industries, some with mixed results. At the Calgary office of the Canadian Information Processing Society, former vice-president Mohamed Teja worked together with the Calgary Board of Education to set up a career pathway program for high school students interested in working in information technology.

Part of the challenge Teja faced was finding an appropriate job for Grade 11 and 12 students during their six-week summer stints. Some of the students were put on the help desk; others worked on upgrading desktops or changing operating systems.

A bigger challenge he faced, however, was finding employers interested in participating in such a program. The prospect of building a pipeline of future employees wasn’t enough of an inducement, because the students were still too many years away from entering the workforce, said Teja.

“It was a challenge. Some employers had a hard time trying to figure out what they could really do within a six-week period, and some employers got caught up with, ‘What’s in it for me?’ So it was a challenge in finding the employers that had a commitment to the community.”

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