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Energy groups look for workers of tomorrow

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By Sheila McNulty in Houston

Published: October 21 2008 03:00 | Last updated: October 21 2008 03:00

It is afternoon at The Children’s Museum of Houston and Angelo is scooping up pink plastic stars to see which of three different shaped cups can hold more.

In fact, they all hold the same amount, teaching the nine-year-old about spatial awareness and logic – two of many skills the energy industry is keen to develop in the workforce of tomorrow. The skills are not taught by accident – ExxonMobil is sponsoring the exhibit.

Oil and gas companies used to secure staff by offering college internships. But the industry faces the loss of 50 per cent of its most experienced workers within the next 10 years, and competition for the dwindling pool of qualified personnel has intensified. Companies have turned first to high schools and then to places like the museum to spark an interest in even younger children.

ExxonMobil’s exhibit is called Magnificent Math Moments. El Paso, a natural gas pipeline and exploration and production company, is funding “How does it work?” hands-on displays. ConocoPhillipssponsors Earth Sciences Week. The list goes on.

Future geologists could get their first exposure to rocks in an exhibit where children weigh and identify minerals. Tomorrow’s engineers might discover a love for building in the inventors’ workshop of Lego kits. Refinery designers might learn about geometry and spatial reasoning doing a toothpick puzzle.

“What I’m hearing from oil companies is that they want the different exhibits that develop the engineers,” says Priscilla Larson, the museum’s director of development. Companies recognise that the children visiting the museum will be too young to make up the projected shortfall. But staffing constraints will only get worse if they do not find a way to interest these children, experts say.

“Math and science are critically important to our company,” says Truman Bell, of the ExxonMobil Foundation, which has donated more than $800,000 (£467,000, €601,000) to the museum as part of a broad effort to improve maths and science education in the US. But encouraging children to take an interest in the oil and gas industry can be an uphill struggle. Many young people are suspicious of fossil fuels, seeing them as polluting technologies that have already peaked.

Mike Krenek, director at Deloitte Services, the consultant, knows from his own children that students “do not see the oil companies at the forefront of excitement and social consciousness”. He adds: “Trying to change the mindsets is key.”

Monte King, manager of Shell’s workforce development initiative, says the goal is to convince students that energy is a high-tech, rather than “dinosaur” industry. Given the difficulties in accessing conventional fuels and calls for more environmentally friendly energy sources, he says, the industry is at the forefront of technological breakthroughs. “This is the challenge of our decade.”

So the companies are not stopping with the children’s museum. El Paso has funded a robotics lab at the KIPP school for low-income students in Houston, where it sponsors high-school interns and a senior year work/study programme.

Doug Foshee, El Paso’s chief executive, says the talent shortage is “urgent” and believes inviting in underprivileged high-school students as interns or part-time workers is key.

“They learn what it is like to be in a professional atmosphere,” he says. “They learn what it would be like to go to college.”

Eric Guerra, 16, who has done two El Paso internships, says: “El Paso tells us we’re El Paso’s future generation.”

Danielle Malone, 24, became an El Paso accountant after joining KIPP in the fifth grade. She says: “That’s when my foundation was laid.”

Houston hopes such foundations will maintain it as the energy capital of the world and is hosting three academies to train students for the industry.

The 100 students at Charles Milby High School’s Academy of Petroleum E&P Technology go on field trips to companies such as Halliburton; study everything from geology to environmental systems; and are motivated weekly by industry guest speakers.

For Milby student Beverly Biggs, 16, the expected future dearth of staff is, if anything, an incentive.

“I’m going to make a lot of money,” she says, “because everybody is going to leave.”

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