UA, industry come together, develop course to train Alaskans for jobs in Alaska

Something like half the workers at the Tesoro Alaska Co. refinery in Nikiski are in their 40s and 50s, said plant manager Rod Cason. When they retire, Tesoro will need qualified replacements.

oilgas.jpg That is the sort of need to be filled by a new two-year degree program an industry coalition has arranged with the University of Alaska -- including the Soldotna campus of Kenai Peninsula College.

"I don’t need to tell you how important it is to have our own people hired for jobs," Holly Norwood, manager of quality control and operations analysis, told the North Peninsula Chamber of Commerce on Feb. 8.

"I am very interested in making sure Alaskans get hired for Alaska jobs."

The university’s process technology program is part of a work force development and renewal program developed by the Alaska Process Industry Career Consortium, which includes partners from the oil and gas, mining and power generation industries, education, government, labor and communities.

Norwood said the consortium and the Mining and Petroleum Training Service worked with the university to develop a curriculum that supplements existing petroleum technology, instrumentation and electronics education programs.

The process technology program, taught at the university’s Soldotna, Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses, covers topics from pumps and turbines to instrumentation, safety and quality control. It leads to a two-year associate of applied science degree. Norwood teaches a course titled Introduction to Process Technology.

She said industry no longer can afford on-the-job training.

"Development of the computer and advanced technology go hand-in-hand," she said. "Competitive efficiency has become an issue. He who has the best-trained workers is going to be able to make their widgets cheaper."

A decade ago, workers simply came and did their jobs, Norwood said.

Today, "the worker has to be very knowledgeable about yield structure and how that affects the bottom line," she said.

In addition, complex environmental and safety regulations took effect beginning in the early 1990s, and those have produced the need for a more sophisticated work force, Norwood said. She expects that to show in the quality of the workers required for new facilities, such as the experimental gas-to-liquids plant BP is building in Nikiski.

"You have to have an education in multiple disciplines, plus the environmental and safety ramifications of every decision made," she said.

Norwood said she expects 24 students to graduate from the KPC program in December. By May 2002, another 30 graduates will be available, she said. BP already has been quizzing members of the present class at KPC to see how much they have learned.

Jack Brown, who represents Nikiski on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly, praised the program.

"I have heard from a lot of companies that there aren’t enough trained Alaskans. This will really fill a void," he said.

Cason said the training program will bring big benefits.

"Even with contractors for turnaround (the periodic overhaul and maintenance at the refinery), we end up bringing in people just out of high school that don’t have a lot of training," he said. "This will give those guys some background. They’ll know what an exchanger or a tower is before they show up."

The process technology program cannot turn out graduates too quickly.

Norwood said Tesoro will need 330 workers for the turnaround scheduled this spring. Some must have skills not available here, but 243 workers could be hired locally.

However, Tesoro estimates that construction of the BP gas-to-liquids plant could require 250 workers, and turnaround at the liquefied natural gas plant Phillips Petroleum Co. operates in Nikiski could require 50 workers. Add Tesoro’s need, and the demand is for 543 workers.

Tesoro estimates there are just 200 qualified workers available locally.

Those are just rough estimates, Norwood said. However, they suggest the industry may have to look elsewhere to fill several hundred peninsula jobs.

"Tesoro will request workers from contract suppliers," she said.

Don Schreiner, Cook Inlet manager for VECO Construction Inc., said VECO can import workers from other parts of the state if necessary.

Mark Nelson, president of Alaska Petroleum Contractors, said APC could do the same. But even when APC built processing equipment for the Alpine oil field, it was surprising how much qualified labor was available on the Kenai Peninsula, he said.

02/17/2001 - 8:00pm