Nation's Only High School 'Oil' Academy Sets Possible Trend

Abstract: Located in California's prolific San Joaquin Basin production area, Kern Union High is quietly training young people for possible future petroleum industry employment.

Analysis: Some remarkable things are going on at Taft Union High School in Taft, CA.

Some 114, or nearly 13 percent, of the students in grades 10 through 12 at the 900-student Kern County school are getting hands-on, preparatory education focused on the petroleum industry. They're part of an operation called the Taft Oil-Technology Academy.

At the academy, along with their regular high school studies, the young people are gaining valuable human resources assets, including familiarity with oilfield equipment, a knowledge of workplace routine, a solid work ethic, brushed-up social skills, even an acceptable dress code. In short, they're getting a lot of what they'll need when they enter the increasingly high-tech job market. But it's not just an oil industry "job farm." Students also train in practical IT skills, and learn how to apply and use design software, among other computer-related skills used by all industries. That's where the "Technology" part of the name fits in.

The academy was established three years ago, and results so far indicate these kids should be ideal candidates for jobs in oil and gas--or in any other industry, for that matter--right out of high school or after college or trade schooling. But it hasn't happened yet. The first full academy class won't graduate until next May.

Also remarkable is that some academy students were potential dropouts, perhaps likely candidates either for minimum wage jobs, or worse. But thanks to the academy's program, the odds against that happening have been raised significantly. Collectively, their grades have improved, their school attendance is excellent, and most hope to get a college education.

The Taft initiative is part of a movement that started in the U.S. more than 30 years ago. Many of these so-called "school-to-career" programs exist in different forms around the country today. Created originally to help provide academic and vocational training to disadvantaged students and to chip away at youth unemployment, they grew into what are known generally as "partnership academies," and are based on a three-way joint venture among state and local school districts and supporting area businesses. Base funding comes from state treasuries. In California, the state contributes $42,000 to each academy for the first year--the 10th-grade program--followed by up to $72,000 for an 11th-grade program. Once the academy provides three years of programs, 10th through 12th grades, it receives $81,000 a year. But that's not all. These amounts must then be matched through monetary or in-kind contributions from both the school district involved and the business partners working with them. That's a lot of money, atypical of most public secondary school expenditures on actual teaching.

Basically, an academy functions as a school within a school, with students volunteering during their 9th-grade year to join when they become 10th-graders. But it isn't a slam-dunk. They then must go through an extensive application, interview, and selection process. If chosen, they commit to remain in the program through their senior year. And that isn't easy, either. There is strict accountability. Among other things, academy students must steadily improve their grade-point averages and hold tardiness and absenteeism to a bare minimum, with consequences for variances (such as having to attend early morning meetings or doing after-school research projects). And, of course, they have to behave themselves. There is some attrition at Taft Union, but it's due mostly to students and their families moving away.

Currently, there are some 200 such academies in California schools, but the Taft version is the only one in the state--and in fact, in the entire country--with a career path focused on the petroleum industry. That the Taft district boundary encompasses three of the largest onshore producing fields in the Lower 48 states--Elk Hills, Midway-Sunset, and Kern Ridge--is a major influence on that focus. Obviously, both state and local governments, as well as school districts, benefit from the Kern County oil and gas tax base.

Rick Woodson, director of the Taft academy, is a certified secondary school educator, as are all instructors, who sign on as volunteers in addition to their regular teaching duties. Woodson is highly enthusiastic about the program. There are a lot of benefits, he observed. "The academy offers many opportunities for these students," he stated, "and offers the industry opportunities for possible future employees who have a better understanding and appreciation of the petroleum industry at an earlier age."

Woodson explained that the academy curricula are designed to prepare students for higher learning. For example, all courses meet the requirements of the University of California. The difference is, in addition to their regular core classes each year, including English, history, and mathematics, the students take technology courses. There, they learn about oil and gas exploration, drilling, transportation, processing, and marketing. They also do extensive research on various industry topics. They even have formal debates arguing important industry issues. One such recent debate involved the pros and cons of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The heavy emphasis on computer skills ranges from spreadsheet/database work to creating information for presentations in various computer software applications, including Microsoft PowerPoint, video, and so forth. In fact, during their first year, students are required to use computers to "draw" a drilling rig, a production rig, and a pumping unit, and label the major working parts, explaining how each works individually and as a whole.

The students also take frequent field trips to working oilfield sites, where they're shown drilling and production facilities, pipeline installations and processing trains, and more. Afterward, they are required to write summaries of what they learned. They also pen personal thank-you notes to the company representatives who arranged the trip.

Employees of local offices of producing companies, oilfield manufacturing, service and supply firms, and other oilpatch businesses have supported the academy gladly, Woodson said. They volunteer as guest speakers and often lead field trips. But they're also involved at the ground level by serving as mentors to individual students.

Arlyse Scrivner, a Human Resources specialist for Occidental Petroleum Corp. at Elk Hills, is a member of the academy's steering committee as well as an advisor to the several Oxy employees who devote time to the students. She also mentors many of the students.

Scrivner said Oxy fully supports the academy, and currently is considering how to help establish additional academies in other oilpatch areas, particularly where Oxy has facilities. This possibly could include the Midland-Odessa area of Texas, among others, she said. The participation of other petroleum industry companies, including vendors, also is important to expanding the idea elsewhere, she added.

"There are so many student benefits to such an academy," she said. "It's a prep school kind of thing, so it allows students to get more one-on-one instruction, something they may not have gotten as part of the general school population."

And, she noted, because a large percentage of the local population is employed in the petroleum industry, students' parents are heavily involved in helping the program succeed. "We have some 30 companies involved at all levels," she said, adding that a number offer summer internships to age-qualified academy students.

But the industry's effort isn't totally altruistic. The petroleum industry is on the upswing again, and eventually it's bound to have problems finding qualified people. "If we can promote our industry, and at the same time benefit the next generation of American workers to be more productive in any industry, not just oil and gas, then everybody wins," Scrivner said. While obtaining higher education is the academy's goal, if some students are not able to do so, they are ready to enter the workforce as high school graduates, perhaps attending college or technical school at a later time.

"When they graduate, they already have gone through a lot of the training that companies usually set aside for new hires," she said. "Our industry has to spend a lot of time training people. The academy students have a lot of that training already, including safety and environmental training. All own personal protective gear--hard hats and steel-toed boots, etc.--and have a formal resume and a certificate of technical courses completed. The general consensus among local companies is that if a job is open and academy students apply, they'll be considered seriously to fill it."

There's no doubt that the state of California has problems, not the least of which is a two-year deficit totaling nearly $40 billion--the largest among the growing number of state deficits across the U.S. And California's overall school system gets its share of criticism, as well.

But the apparent success of the Taft Oil-Technology Academy approach is one shining example of smooth cooperation among government, academia, and business.

It also begs the question of why more such petroleum-oriented academies aren't already established across the oilpatch. The Taft academy folks say that could happen rather quickly if an oilpatch state, its school districts, and petroleum industry businesses join together to make it so.