CH2M Hill recruiting effort aims to stop Alaskan ‘brain drain’


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CH2M Hill engineers Erin Ersland, left, and Brittany Cottrell are Alaskans newly recruited by the company. Ersland is a process engineer and Cottrell is a project/mechanical engineer. Cottrell was an intern with the company before going on staff; Ersland was recruited after graduating from college.

Photo/Michael Dinneen/AJOC

These are uncertain times in Alaska’s oil patch, but one major service company, ever hopeful about the long-term future, is still recruiting young Alaskans into its technical workforce.

In fact, in 2012 there were 25 college and six high school interns, a near-record for CH2M Hill in Alaska and the largest batch of any single office for the Denver-based company. The company’s largest batch of interns was in 2008, when there were 38.

“The engineering group in the company takes in most of the interns although there are also interns in construction management, business development and sometimes accounting,” said Emily Cross, who coordinates the program for CH2M Hill. “How many interns we can take depends on the forecast for our summer workload. We don’t want these interns sitting around doing research. We want them working on projects.”

However, much of the work for CH2M Hill, and other oil service companies, is related to maintenance of the existing oil fields. This is a problem for the industry, and the state, because there needs to be more projects to produce new oil, given the ongoing decline of oil production, said Tom Maloney, CH2M Hill’s Alaska area manager.

Five of the 25 interns working last summer were from the University of Alaska’s Alaska Native in Science and Engineering Program, or ANSEP, a UAA program supported by CH2M Hill that works with Alaska Native students in engineering and science, many of them from small rural Alaska communities.

Internships for students are a traditional way companies go about recruiting fresh talent. It is essentially a 10-week summer job for young people that gives them a chance to see what they are studying as applied in the real world, and to work alongside professionals.

It also gives a company a chance to become familiar with a prospective employee, and for a student to get a good look at a company where he or she might seek employment after graduation.

High school interns typically work in the company’s drafting and auto-CAD group, which is good preparation for engineering or other technical studies.

Across the nation, CH2M Hill sponsored 189 interns in all of its offices, Cross said. The company’s Alaska office is its largest working in support of oil and gas producers.

In Alaska, CH2M Hill also sees the internships as a way to stop the “brain drain” of talented young Alaskans out of the state, said Maloney.

The flow of work, particularly in the company’s oil services division, is uncertain at this point but it is very important for a technology company like CH2M Hill to maintain a pipeline of fresh talent, Maloney said. 

“Too many of our smartest high school and college graduates head out of state, to go to college for example, and they don’t come back. By hiring more of these people we’re investing, by keeping them here,” Maloney said.

Internships often lead to jobs, though that always depends on the flow of work. Also, companies also recruit directly, making an offer directly to a recent graduate.

Meanwhile, three young Alaskan professionals recruited CH2M Hill recently are Brittany Cottrell, Ben Packa and Erin Ersland. Cottrell is a mechanical engineer as well as a project engineer. Packa is a mechanical engineer. Ersland is a process engineer. All three are now engaged in projects of crucial importance to extending the life of aging production facilties, though they’d also like to be doing “greenfield” projects, on facilities that will produce new oil.

Cottrell has been with CH2M Hill for 4 ½ years including her work as an intern. She is a product of the University of Alaska Anchorage’s School of Engineering, graduating in 2009 with a minor in math along with her bachelor’s degree in engineering.  She graduated from Service High School in Anchorage in 2004.

Cottrell learned about CH2M Hill at a job fair, where she met some of the company’s managers. She dropped off a resume, interviewed and was hired.

One of her current projects involves the relocating the control room in the Kuparuk River field’s Central Process Facility 1, a project requiring the moving and reorganizing of a complex network of wiring and instrumentation.

Last summer she was involved in the “turnaround” of the Prudhoe Bay field Central Compression Facility, a plant that injects gas produced with oil back underground to produce more oil. The CCF is one of the world’s largest gas processing plants, and hadn’t seen a complete turnaround, or shutdown for major maintenance, since Prudhoe Bay started production in 1977.

Ersland has been with CH2M Hill for about six months, having graduated from the University of Portland in 2012 and from Anchorage’s South High School in 2008.

She wasn’t sure she would be able to return to Alaska to work after graduating in Oregon, but gave her resume to Maloney, who helped steer her into the internship program.

“Portland is actually not bad for engineering graduates, but I had a chance to come back home, so I took it,” she said.

As a process engineer, Ersland is now engaged in a project to upgrade fire and water lines in the fire suppression systems in two of the Kuparuk field oil processing plants, CPF-1 and CPF-3.

Packa, a 2007 graduate of Colony High School in Palmer, received his mechanical engineering degree in 2011 graduate at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He was recruited by CH2M Hill directly from college but not before he had looked around a bit, including out-of-state.

“I found the job market in Alaska a lot more competitive than I anticipated, and I didn’t know if I would be able to stay in the state,” he said. “It was difficult at first to get offers from within Alaska, and I actually got offers from out-of-state before I found CH2M Hill.”

Packa was courted by a major U.S. oil services company to work in North Dakota, in that state’s booming oil industry.

“I went down there to look around, but I decided that it wasn’t for me,” he said, referring mainly to the state’s boomtown atmosphere.

“There isn’t enough housing. People were living out of the back of pickup trucks, or being gouged for rent on small trailers,” he said.

Since joining CH2M Hill Packa has been working on BP’s pipeline maintenance and pipe replacement program, a series of projects to make the system easier to inspect and keep free from corrosion.

Tim Bradner can be reached at tim.bradner@alaskajournal.com.

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