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Refining the most vital kind of energy

June 03, 2007|RICK WARTZMAN

ADMITTEDLY, it feels like an odd time to be singing the praises of Big Oil.

Last week, the driving season kicked off with gasoline prices hitting a Memorial Day record and profits gushing across the petroleum sector. Recently, the House of Representatives passed anti-gouging legislation to protect the public from "being ripped off" at the pump, in the words of one lawmaker.

But for Southern California refiners, this summer promises to be marked by more than consumer outrage. In July, executives from ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil Corp., BP, Valero Energy Corp. and Tesoro Corp. will be celebrating the achievements of as many as 40 low-income men and women who've gone through an intense, seven-month training program that (assuming they pass their final exam) all but assures each a $70,000-a-year job with good benefits at one of the firms.

Although small when it comes to the number of participants, the program is proving to be hugely effective. As a result, it's looked upon as a model for how businesses in a wide variety of fields should approach workforce development.

Lord knows, they're going to have to figure out something -- and fast. One study after another has concluded that a majority of American manufacturers are experiencing a serious shortage of qualified employees, and the situation may well worsen as more and more baby boomers retire. In California, the scarcity of skilled labor is pinching firms in construction, healthcare and other services as well.

"It's not one industry," says Joy Chen, a principal at the executive recruiting firm Heidrick & Struggles and a former deputy mayor of Los Angeles. "It's across the board."

For the oil companies around L.A.'s South Bay, an aging labor force has resulted in the need to recruit 100 to 150 process technicians -- those who run and monitor refinery equipment -- annually. They're also looking for instrument technicians, welders and others. Each is expected to come into the position with at least a modicum of know-how.

Until now, the difficult question has been: Who could possibly fill that pipeline?

Amazingly, as it turns out, the answer was to be found just around the corner -- literally.

About a decade ago, a social services agency called the South Bay Center for Counseling reached out to nearby refineries to land jobs for folks in Torrance, Wilmington, Carson and other spots in the area who were trying to get off welfare.

But this early effort, says Colleen Mooney, the center's executive director, "was not spectacularly successful" because many of those placed by her staff didn't have the right educational background.

"We learned a lot," Mooney says -- the biggest lesson being this: It takes a village to raise a refinery worker.

The current Energy Pathway Program, as it's known, begins by making sure that those accepted are prepared academically. To get in, applicants must read and do math at a minimum 10th-grade level. But not everybody who otherwise shows promise -- in terms of ambition, character and raw intelligence -- can meet that standard.

In fact, nearly half of those now enrolled in the program originally tested at only a fourth- or fifth-grade level, even though they all walked in with high school diplomas. (Talk about an indictment of our public education system.) So Mooney built a three-month remedial "bridge program" to get them where they needed to be.

Yet much more than formal instruction is offered.

Mooney and the refiners have put together a whole support system in which counselors from the South Bay center participate with the trainees every step of the way. They even attend class with them nightly, and if anyone seems to be faltering in the slightest -- if they're late or don't show up or have been beset by some kind of crisis that is all too common in the lives of the poor -- a helping hand is extended immediately.

"It's a lot harder to fail when somebody has your back," says Van Dickerson, 21, who grew up in a Long Beach family plagued by poverty. Now he's counting on the program to propel him far beyond the low-wage retail jobs he's held in the past.

The students also remain together as a unit throughout the training, fostering a strong sense of teamwork.

Then there's the refiners' role. They played a direct part in shaping the program's curriculum, ensuring that what's often seen in job-training initiatives -- courses and "job clubs" that don't match up terribly well with the demands of the real world -- doesn't occur here.

The companies are doing something else that's notable: putting in dough. Most of the funding for the process technicians program is contributed by the state -- $600,000 over 18 months. But ConocoPhillips, Valero and Exxon Mobil are each chipping in $25,000 a year.

That's a pittance, of course, for these behemoths. I'd love to see them pick up the entire tab and let the state use its scant resources to seed similar undertakings elsewhere. Still, it's rare to find any private-sector money in these sorts of endeavors.

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