NEW ORLEANS — Students who complete the oil and gas drilling program at Lone Star College in Texas have the skills and behavioral attributes sought by employers.
That program, one of the credential models developed under the American Association of Community Colleges’ (AACC) Right Signals Initiative, was showcased at AACC’s Workforce Development Institute this week. As part of Right Signals, Lone Star worked with the International Association of Drilling Contractors (IADC) to develop an effective curriculum and credential system.
Right Signals, supported by a grant from the Lumina Foundation, aims to help community colleges develop a new model that recognizes multiple high-quality credentials, such as degrees, certificates, industry certifications, apprenticeships and badges.
Key to that is industry engagement, said Associate Chancellor Linda Head, who heads the college’s workforce education and corporate partnerships department. An advisory council to her college’ s program includes representatives from dozens of companies in oil and gas drilling industries.
Lone Star and its industry partners tested the beta version of Lumina’s framework for creating and evaluating credentials, shared best practices, and embedded behavior skills into its oil and gas program, Head said.
The college also hosted an IADC summit to share best practices and the beta framework with other colleges. It’s in the process of incorporating a list of 40 behavior skills into every associate of applied science degree program and is working with the registrar to add third-party credentials to student transcripts.
Workforce programs not only prepare students for good jobs but also develop good citizens and contribute to community development, said Stephen Head, Lone Star chancellor and a member of the AACC board of directors.
Input from industry
IADC designs curriculum and develops standards for training in the oil and gas drilling industry. It is focused on developing globally accepted competency benchmarks for knowledge, skills and ability, said Linda Polk, director of program development and technology.
IADC brought together nine industry work groups – in such areas as marine operations, technical maintenance, safety and processes and procedures – to list the capabilities that personnel on oil rigs should have.
“It’s important for colleges to be at the table in developing competencies,” Polk said, so Lone Star and other colleges were invited to see if they could provide the appropriate workforce education.
College leaders listened to what the industry wanted, Polk said, and as a result, behavioral competency was added as a critical element. Most problems in the industry are due to human error, she noted.
IADC incorporated the competencies into a free database system, allowing colleges to access them and filter them by specific jobs, geographic region and equipment used, Polk said. That allows colleges to build training to meet the needs of specific employers.
Producing better employees
Industry wants to hire people who already have the skills and an industry certification, Polk said. The retention rate for people who have come through Lone Star is 90 percent, compared to just 30 percent among those who come in through a company’s human resources department.
Hiring people who’ve completed a college program saves companies money, she said, noting they spend about $10,000 to train someone who doesn’t have the right job qualifications.
The Lone Star program also addresses the psychological issues involved in oil and gas drilling, said Stephen Head. People who are interested in working on an oil rig need to understand the psychological impact of working on a marine platform or being assigned to another state.
That’s important because companies want to hire people who understand what the job entails and are committed to doing the work, Polk said. In some cases, new hires have been flown to an oil rig at the company’s expense, only to discover they don’t want to work in that environment.
“People are fighting over Lone Star graduations. They are promotable and highly skilled,” she said.
A good fit
When Kristen Blissit, a Navy veteran, learned about opportunities in the oil and gas industry, “I knew that would be a good place to be” and would allow her to provide for her family, she said.
At Lone Star, Blissit learned about electrical systems, hydraulics, pneumatics and safety, among other things. She also spent a week on Lone Star’s training rig. It was then that she decided to take advantage of the many opportunities in the field that don’t involve extended stays on oil rigs. Blissit decided to specialize in document control and now works at IADC as a document control coordinator.
Along the way, Blissit earned 12 credit hours in mechatronics that apply to an associate degree.
That highlights the value of “non-credit credits,” said Linda Head. If a student earns an industry credential, it’s easier for the college to reward credit. And that fits in with a college’s work on pathways.
Polk advised other colleges to develop a credential framework that is understandable, meaningful and useful to industry. It’s also important to build trust with industry, she said. “You are asking them to open their closets,” while companies are reluctant to say what they need to improve.
IADC found one issue that needed to be addressed was financial planning. New employees, often hired right out of high school for oil rig jobs paying $75,000 a year, needed budgeting skills. They bought expensive cars and boats but couldn’t pay their bills.
Another challenge was how to handle long-term employees who had the technical competencies but deviated from the job requirements. That meant changing the culture to strengthen the focus on safety. Lone Star listened and responded to those needs, Polk said.
A model for other industries
The Right Signals involved 20 colleges that worked on developing programs for a range of industries, including manufacturing, HVAC, information technology and healthcare, said Michael McCall, a consultant to AACC on the project.
AACC helped institutions create “cross-functional connections” within an institution to examine how to measure competencies to meet the needs of a specific industry, using Lumina’s beta framework, McCall said.
The grant linked together pathways – involving industry, the college and students. The key, McCall said, is figuring out “what signals you are sending to a student.”
“This is about leadership,” said Stephen Head. “You can get things done if you choose to do it. To be successful you have to have a partnership.”
He called Lone Star’s work with IADC “a great model for other industries.”