By Frank McCallum
Alberta Distance Learning Centre
Resource employers struggling to fill entry-level, grow-on-the-job, “blue-collar” positions understand Canada’s vacant jobs paradox better than anyone.
Unemployment and dropout rates are high in many of the areas they operate. The inescapable logic of this is that many young school leavers need an alternative to professional or ticketed-trade career paths just as badly as industry needs applicants for the very jobs they could thrive doing.
In such a scenario, what do both students and employers need from the education system?
Well first, potential candidates must know the opportunities exist, that they are perfectly capable of seizing them, and that these positions can be the start of a fulfilling career for employees who take advantage of opportunities for advancement.
Second, those candidates should know as much as possible about the work before they start – both to increase immediate productivity by shortening learning curves, and to reduce the number who will realize the job is a bad fit and quit after only a few months on the job.
And third, employers need to reduce the cost and disruption of injuries by instilling knowledge and a culture of safety before lessons start being learned the hard way.
In conjunction with Northern Lights School Division (NLSD), Alberta Distance Learning Centre (ADLC) has come up with a new education model designed to meet precisely these needs, and to do so in a way that appeals to youth for whom traditional core-subject high-school learning doesn’t seem relevant or motivating.
This model is based on the ability of a computer simulation to reinforce what has been taught in theory, the way a flight or driving simulator accomplishes what handbooks and classrooms can never do on their own. It recognizes that while all of us are experiential learners to some extent, that path is especially effective for members of groups such as rural and Aboriginal youth that tend to be under-represented in higher education.
A pilot of the concept is currently being conducted at three NLSD schools. It focuses on the role of a Junior Floor Hand on the service rigs that maintain and repair Alberta’s oil wells after they go into production (and which are, therefore, less affected by fluctuations in oil prices).
And if the experience and reactions of the first students taking Energy Education 35 are anything to go by, many other occupations and industries – from agriculture to forestry – may see opportunities to help themselves as well.
Seventeen-year-old Kaelan Elchuk is a Grade 12 student at Bonnyville Centralized High School. Six months ago, he didn’t know what he was going to be doing when he graduated this spring. Now he has purpose and direction; he knows he wants to work on a service rig. He has been working ahead on schoolwork at home, and he is excited to come to school, as his teacher Janice Zazulak marvels.
As Elchuk and fellow pilot students make clear, the course does not start with the simulation, but rather with more traditional forms of interactive online instruction – concentrating on safety and on the equipment and processes the new Junior Floor Hand would encounter and be part of on a service rig. The focus on preparation for employment – which, after all, is the fundamental target outcome of education – is underlined by the inclusion of free online courses for the prerequisite safety tickets.
While the simulation – a first-person, avatar-style interface familiar to millions of computer gamers – may in part serve as an incentive for students to complete the preliminary work, its real value is its ability to let students actually experience what has been taught.
“Our students are concrete sequential learners,” said educator Brian Dewar following a Careers Camp in Grouard, Alberta last fall that introduced eight Aboriginal students to the course and demonstrated the simulation’s potential power with that key target demographic.
“Suddenly they are excited . . . and can see themselves doing that kind of work,” said Dewar, principal of the local school at the time. He added that for some students, the course also provided incentive to improve in core subjects like math and reading, since success in the simulation required them.
In Bonnyville, Elchuk demonstrates a section of the simulation interface in which his character works with a digital crewmate to ready a length of pipe for insertion into a well. He is now confident enough to look over his shoulder during pauses in a process that is becoming second nature.
“At first I was messing up, but as you slowly work your way into it, you get better.” Regarding the job he hopes to qualify for in September, he says “I’ll still be nervous, but I’ll know what to expect.”
The simulation, developed by an Alberta company called Coole Immersive, is a training tool developed for the real world; it is all business and doesn’t make things easy or cut slack for teenaged students. By the end stages, it is both highly detailed and demanding, requiring students to complete their cycle of tasks flawlessly three times to pass the five-credit course.
Of course this can be frustrating, but they also learn that in the real world there are worse things: someone can get hurt, equipment can be damaged, you can lose your job.
One rig manager has said that using new workers trained on Coole Immersive’s simulation is like hiring people with the safety skills that come with six months’ experience.
“I’m flying through it,” Lin Livingston says of Energy Education 35. The Grade 11 Bonnyville student demonstrates the section of the simulation that requires the student/worker to identify and flag the various safety hazards that could endanger either workers or equipment. “You get to see what everybody does in detail, and where you fit in.”
Teacher Zazulak says part of Livingston’s commitment is rooted in a recent rejection for a work placement on the grounds that a girl wouldn’t fit in. Now she is very excited to prove she can do heavy outdoor work “as well as any boy.”
At a second NLSD pilot school 150 kilometres northwest of Bonnyville in Plamondon, the importance of safety and the value of the simulation have a different but equally positive result. Grade 10 students Logan Kraskoff and Shayla Ludington say the course’s success at showing what service-rig work is like has pushed them in a different direction.
“I was looking into the oil rigs and stuff, and then once I started doing the course I had a feeling for what it was about; I learned about that job,” said Kraskoff. The result? He knows that for him the work would be too repetitive; he’s now looking at auto mechanics.
Ludington said “I found the simulator very helpful. Just reading about the rig – it was kind of difficult to understand what I was supposed to be doing. But once I got to see it, it became very clear to me.”
She’s now looking at power engineering. Apart from the pre-employment nudge toward a career that might be a better fit for her, she says the stress on safety was a definite takeaway.
We live in an era that gives most of the attention in our education system and on both sides of the employment equation to those who follow paths to professional degrees or tickets. Lower oil prices and reduced activity in Alberta’s oil patch in recent months further darken the picture that outsiders see about prospects for positions a young Albertan can walk into with only a work ethic and a high-school diploma.
But a good many such positions will be available going forward, especially with recent changes to the Temporary Foreign Worker Program.
Thanks to OPEC’s current drive to depress prices, Canadian exploration has been cut back and production forecasts have been lowered. But even if Canadian light-oil production falls this year from 770,000 barrels per day to 730,000 BPD, as the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) predicted earlier in June, that still implies many service rig jobs for wells already in production.
And CAPP’s overall growth prediction to 2030, while decidedly lower than it was, still anticipates an increase from 3.7 to 5.3 BPD thanks to the oil sands. Combine that with a 2013 estimate from the Petroleum Human Resources Council that total hiring to the year 2022 would be about 125,000 in a low growth scenario, and the value of efforts to expand the pool of local job candidates clearly remains significant.
For anecdotal evidence of this truth, consider the federal department of Western Economic Diversification’s $1.5-million grant to NLSD for a Service Rig Centre of which Energy Education 35 is a part, and Ensign Energy Services’ donation to that centre of an entire service rig for students such as Elchuk to further his hands-on learning.
In the fall, ADLC will continue its pilot in Bonnyville with a new group of students. Teachers there already have a few who might profit from and be interested in it. In addition, First Nations schools in the Kainai Board of Education near Lethbridge and in Fort McKay, north of Fort McMurray, are being added to a second round of piloting, and Energy Education 35 is being added to the catalog of courses adult learners can access to upgrade their education and employability.
In an era of bad press, global competition, new government agendas, tight commodity process and high labour costs, think what it could mean if worrying statistics such as Alberta’s youth unemployment of 8.8 per cent (2013), its third-highest dropout rate in the country, and on-reserve Aboriginal unemployment as high as 50 per cent could be turned into positive opportunities.
Increasing the ranks of loyal, safety-conscious, smart-but-experiential learners might only be the beginning of the payoff.
Frank McCallum is Assistant Principal at Alberta Distance Learning Centre, and ADLC’s lead on the Energy Education 35 project.