Energy Cos Drill Deeper into Schools to Recruit Young Talent

Dow Jones Newswires

HOUSTON, May 2, 2008 (Dow Jones Newswires)

Oil and gas companies aren't taking an unconventional approach just in the search for new reserves, they're also delving deeper to ease a worsening labor crunch. The gusher this time? Elementary and middle schools.

Nine-year-old Genesis Vazquez, a straight-A student in her science class at Sanchez Elementary School here, is one of thousands of children and teenagers that participate in several industry-supported programs that seek to spark young students' interest in the sciences and energy.

The U.S. energy industry's fortunes increasingly are tied to companies' ability to court en masse prospective employees, such as Vazquez, who wears her hair loose down to her lower back and sports a pair of wire eyeglasses.

The energy workforce is graying at a rapid pace. About half will reach retirement age within the next decade, according to the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, an agency whose members comprise oil- and gas-producing states.

The industry also needs a slew of engineers, geoscientists and managers to work in the dozens of titanic multiyear projects oil companies are developing to meet rising energy needs worldwide. The demand for workers is growing more urgent as surging oil prices approach $120 a barrel.

Energy companies are already paying the price for mass layoffs they instituted in the 1980s when oil prices plunged. Millions left oil and gas companies. Those firms later found themselves short-handed when oil prices rebounded. Over the past four years, while energy prices skyrocketed, so did salaries, as companies aggressively poached specialists from each other. Rising labor costs have eaten into companies' bottom lines and show no signs of abating.

Houston historically had an edge in the energy world, but with labor shortages in the more mature U.S. market, the industry is increasingly looking east to pursue talent, aggressively recruiting in India, China and Russia. The classroom push is another bid by the Texas energy hub to retain more of its traditional advantage.

From Energy Elementary To Petroleum High

In a science classroom, a small space outfitted not with fancy technology or state-or-the-art equipment but with displays showing student projects, Vazquez sits at a desk and flips through a book thick with images of animals.

The environment is the topic of the day, and Vazquez is among the first to respond correctly to her teacher's question about the ability of animals to survive a long drought.

This exercise was developed as part of a course for teachers founded by Houston-based energy giant ConocoPhillips (COP) and Rice University. The curriculum trains hundreds of teachers in the city to use methods that make science education more compelling for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

But Vazquez isn't like most students in the U.S. The oil industry is concerned that poor performance in math and science is moving young people further away from technology-centered careers, undercutting the long-term competitiveness of oil companies.

According to figures from the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress, a project of the U.S. Department of Education that assesses young students' academic performance, almost one-third of American eighth graders are failing to achieve basic competency in math.

"Statistics show that if students don't develop an interest in science by the fifth grade, they are unlikely to develop an interest in science at all," said Anna Kaplan, a spokeswoman for ConocoPhillips, which donated $600,000 in February to expand the teacher-training program.

In the program, teachers from dozens of elementary schools get together in a science lab once a week to review science concepts and learn how to apply them in a classroom.

In the laboratory, Angie Olivarez, a science teacher in Sanchez Elementary School, is examining a crystal ball with black and white blades inside that rotate when exposed to sunlight. This device is called a radiometer, which Olivarez has learned transforms light energy into mechanical energy.

In March, Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM) gave $125 million to the National Math and Science Initiative, a non-profit organization aimed at providing math and science training to thousands of schoolteachers. The Irving, Texas-based energy giant also supports summer camps in several states where teenagers learn about technology, engineering and math.

The Independent Petroleum Association of America, or IPAA, with the support of oil service companies like Schlumberger Ltd (SLB) and Halliburton (HAL) and the city of Houston, in September plans to launch an Academy of Petroleum Exploration and Production Technology, which will expose high-school students to a tailored academic curriculum that includes fundamentals of petroleum, reservoir management, leadership and field trips to oil companies operations sites.

Students in the program, which is embedded in a Houston high school, will have access to paid internships in the oil industry, and they could gain college credits if they decide to pursue a petroleum career, said Doris Richardson, director of IPAA's education center.

Other similar programs in Houston are in the works.

Advocates for children and teenagers warn that kids shouldn't be forced to specialize at too early an age, but that there are many benefits to early exposure to science.

"I wouldn't want to see a child going into a specialized field in third or fourth grade, but if we have the chance to connect our education system to the real world, that is good," said Christopher Spina, spokesman for First Focus, a children's advocate organization that doesn't receive funding from oil companies.

From Crime Scenes To Drilling Machines

According to some studies, students who excel in the sciences tend to pursue careers traditionally perceived as high-tech, such as the computer industry.

Reality seems to match the research. Vasquez said that although she "loves" science and learning about the earth and nature, she wants to become an artist.

"That (the oil industry) is not for women, they (workers) are always dirty and I like to be clean," she said.

The disconnect between the ability to achieve in the sciences and the desire to pursue a career in a field such as energy is also apparent for Isidro Vera, 16, who was invited to the Academy of Petroleum. He was impressed with the industry after a trip that brought him to a Halliburton research center, where he was able to manipulate a three-dimensional, multicolored laser image of a petroleum reservoir with hand and body movements.

Vera said, however, he still wants to become a crime-scene investigator, like the police he watches on television. "I want to help people," he said.

Houston Mayor Bill White, a former chief executive of a small energy company and a staunch supporter of these new educational initiatives, said he knows from experience that children can be convinced that the energy industry is as "cool" as other professions if their exposure to the industry increases.

"When I grew up, the only person in my family that worked in the oil industry was a tool pusher," said White, referring to the challenging but relatively low-level job of keeping a drilling rig in order. "Despite that, I worked in the energy industry, so the reality is that there are many careers in the energy business where young people can do interesting work with good compensation."

HOUSTON, May 2, 2008 (Dow Jones Newswires)