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Vol. 12, No. 7 Week of February 18, 2007
Providing coverage of Alaska and northern Canada's oil and gas industry

VECO sees promise in next generation

No Alaska workforce crisis on the horizon, Eric Helzer says; company's focus is on preparation and making connections

Amy Spittler

Petroleum News

Training programs for high school students, industry-focused university curriculum and varied recruiting tactics have VECO Alaska management feeling positive about the future.

A standard question-and-answer interview intended to get VECO’s outlook on the workforce situation in Alaska uncovered a few, perhaps “off the radar,” efforts the company is making to connect the oil industry to the State of Alaska’s education system and its students.

Everyone benefits from education, awareness

Eric Helzer, VECO’s marketing manager for business development, said the Anchorage-based company has been an active participant in a number of internship programs over the years but feels current work with the Anchorage School District is making a significant impact.

“The program we have going now requires a close working relationship with the city’s principals, focusing specifically on having design-drafting programs in all the schools. Our needs are known from an industry standpoint so the school can tailor its program so students have a feel for what the industry needs,” Helzer said.

As a supplement to the program, select high school students were invited to work in VECO’s design-drafting department last summer, said Bill Barron, vice president of operations and maintenance. “I think it was definitely a unique and positive program for these kids and for the state.”

It’s been reported that a good number of those high school students have continued on to enroll in university programs after graduation, Helzer added.

Focus on architectural, electrical-instrumentation, civil-structural, mechanical with UAA

VECO’s close working relationship with the University of Alaska Anchorage, specifically the engineering department’s architectural and engineering technology program, has proven beneficial as well, Helzer said, for the company and for a good number of students.

UAA’s program focuses on four distinct modules: architectural, electrical-instrumentation, civil-structural and mechanical. Similar to the company’s relationship with the school district, professors at UAA are kept up-to-date on what programs and software applications VECO uses so curriculum can be tailored to match industry needs.

And internships are readily available Helzer said. “It fluctuates with the amount of client participation we can arrange, but I believe we’ve had 40 to 60 interns at our peak. The last several years we’ve had 30 people or so who come in during the summer term.” When the UAA students graduate VECO makes them an offer, hiring about 90 percent of those coming out of the program. Helzer stressed the importance of “creating a link between the industry, the job, the school and what’s needed out of that school. Solid preparation is key for keeping kids interested.”

Variety in hiring tactics creates depth

For those looking to graduate soon, and those currently job hunting, VECO is looking to fill around 200 positions, half in the engineering and construction sectors and half in operations and maintenance.

“We’re always looking for the right people in all classifications,” said Helzer.

VECO receives anywhere from 100 to 200 resumes per day, nearly 1,500 per week and many do not fit the company’s needs. But technicians, engineers, operations and maintenance people, welders, pipe fitters and electricians are always needed.

“Especially these last three to four years, demand has increased,” Helzer said.

When asked how VECO plans to find the right people to meet that demand, Helzer broke down the company’s recruiting efforts.

“We have about 16 full-time recruiters company-wide in offices all around the world. They communicate on a regular basis, and a lot of them have different lines of authority, recruiting for different areas of the company.”

In addition to those individuals, VECO owns a technical agency called RTX, based out of Colorado, which hires contract employees.

“Contract workers sign on with us to take the peaks and the valleys out of our workload. This process helps us maintain a stable workforce from project to project,” explained Helzer.

At any given time VECO has approximately 10 percent to 15 percent of its workforce contracted. “They’re hired with the understanding that they’re with us for a short period of time, anywhere from a few weeks to a little under a year,” he said.

The company recruits university students from outside the University of Alaska system as well.

Kari MacDonald, one of VECO’s recruiting specialists, Helzer noted, “just did an expo with the University of Alaska last month, but we also try to open doors for young people nationwide, get them up here. Kari and a few others travel around the country to attend recruiting events. She’s recently been to Texas A&M and the Colorado School of Mines is next on the list.”

Recognizing opportunity is key

Helzer also made the point that positions with the company are definitely not limited to those who have been through the university system. The Alaska Vocational Technical Center, an industry funded program, was mentioned by Eric Pursley, another VECO recruiter, as a solid option to get into the industry, as well as other trade schools. “College programs can be discouraging, if you look at some of the 2-year programs available, the ones right here at UAA, there are some great career opportunities out there,” added MacDonald.

“The industry isn’t just looking for engineers; we’re looking for technicians and people with given certifications. Those people are always sought after. There’s a lot of work on the North Slope solely for the care and maintenance of the facilities up there,” assured Helzer.

And VECO is open to hiring people who are nearing completion of their required certifications. When appropriate, the company puts the person to work and gives them the opportunity to finish getting certified, Helzer said, once the necessary requirements are met they’re advanced into more specialized positions.

“Whatever you’re into, stay in the program, whatever kind of training or schooling it takes,” said Barron.

“Young people especially need to understand that other than staying current, you have those skills and certifications forever. You can take that and work with that — the industry will embrace you and the doors for opportunity will open,” added Helzer.

VECO, like many Alaska companies, strives for 100 percent local hire, and Helzer believes the company does pretty well.

“Our average is about 90 percent and above. But it certainly varies in different specialty areas. Obviously Alaskans are our first choice.” But when a specialty position needs to be filled, the company doesn’t hesitate to compete for talent from outside, as proven by MacDonald’s efforts.

“We want people with a true desire to work and to learn. You need to know what it means to be a part of a team, to work safely and efficiently,” Helzer said. He and Barron agreed that all jobs within the company are interconnected. “It’s important that we know how to work together to achieve the same end. And VECO is only as good as our employees,” added Helzer.

Those in the room also agreed that working for a privately held, worldwide company has its benefits. “The positions needed to get a project done are needed worldwide; there are a lot of opportunities. And people will get to travel if they’re interested. For example, a significant number of people from my organization are currently helping to staff projects in Russia,” said Barron.

Helzer explained that employees are often given the chance to go overseas to start up new projects, “to cross-fertilize the company, to share what’s been learned here in Alaska. We have confidence in how they’ve been trained and it’s a good opportunity.”

What the future holds

Do VECO’s efforts in education and recruitment imply there’s a legitimate workforce crisis in the state?

“I don’t think there’s a crisis. The opportunities are there if someone wants to take advantage of them,” said Helzer. “I just think there’s probably more competition in some disciplines than in others. You start getting the supply and demand aspect affecting it.” Barron added, “to my knowledge we’ve never had to turn down a job or the opportunity to bid due to lack of available labor.”

Questions have been raised in forums around the state as to whether or not young people will be prepared or interested when big projects come online in the future. Helzer and Barron agreed that a gas pipeline could change the current situation and create a different problem.

But Barron chuckled, noting, “that same comment was made when I started 30 years ago. So is it a generational thing to some extent? Sure. People who have been here a long time have the experience and have the background; you’re looking at the new people coming in and they don’t have the experience or the background. But it has to be understood that you gain it and you earn it, and you work through it.”

Helzer stressed that the most important thing is to recognize the opportunities. “There’s an awareness and an appreciation for living in Alaska and recognizing what the industry has to offer that has to be coached and mentored and taught and identified at an early age.”

VECO is a multi-national corporation that provides services such as project management, engineering, procurement, construction and operations and maintenance to the energy, resource and process industries and to the public sector.

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