Engineering News

La. High School's Refinery Training Rekindles Debate over Vocational Ed
September 28, 2011

Lawrence Donsereaux resembles a stout, industrial Houdini dressed in a cobalt blue jumpsuit and fiddling with the valves of a football-sized vacuum chamber at L.B. Landry High School in Algiers. A cup of water boils inside the clear dome.

"The kids like this one," Donsereaux said through a smile, explaining how refineries save energy by heating oil within a vacuum where it boils at low temperature.

He lifts the dome and dips his finger into the boiling water. A group of students seated nearby lift curious gazes as he removes his finger unscathed with flourish.

For Donsereaux, the training director at the ConocoPhillips Alliance Refinery in Belle Chasse, the vacuum-boiled water is more than a gimmick. It's an attempt to fill what he says is a glaring education gap in New Orleans.

This year Donsereaux helped start the process technology program, known as PTEC, at L.B. Landry. It will train students to work with and maintain equipment used to turn raw materials such as crude oil or sugar cane into usable products. The 40 students now enrolled will also earn college credit toward an associate degree.

Donsereaux, a 40-year veteran of the chemical and refining industry who graduated from L.B. Landry in 1969, says refinery jobs pay as high as $70,000 per year and are available at facilities surrounding New Orleans. But most inner-city students "don't really have a clue" and those who do require years of training to understand the work.

"There's a ton of jobs out there," Donsereaux said. "The question is 'How do I get in?'"

At L.B. Landry, a $10,000 grant from the New Orleans Student Scholarship Foundation and federal vocational grant money is funding PTEC instruction this year. ConocoPhillips donated more than $250,000 in equipment.

If successful, Brian Beabout, an educational leadership professor at the University of New Orleans, said the PTEC program will rekindle the debate on the role of vocational programs in city schools. Local education administrators have pushed money toward traditional coursework as resources tighten and school success is measured increasingly in terms of academic achievement.

"Vocational programs are the 15th thing on the radar for most school districts now," Beabout said.

Refineries and process plants nationwide confront a graying work force and want to quickly replace retirees with skilled workers, said Eric Newby, president of the North American Process Technology Alliance.

"In the past, we could afford to hire a worker's nephew at the gate with no skills and no formal education and we could spend 10 or 15 years teaching him to be a good operator," Newby said. "Today we can't do that. "

Community and technical colleges traditionally have filled the training need in Louisiana. At Nunez Community College in Chalmette, students have graduated from the PTEC program to jobs with Chalmette Refining, Folgers Coffee and Domino Sugar since 2005. The college also offers introductory PTEC courses at Chalmette High School.

Nunez Chancellor Thomas Warner said the program has 160 students enrolled, including one-third from Orleans Parish, but funding is still an obstacle. In 2008, the program secured a $1.5 million federal grant to purchase new equipment.

"Still, there is never enough support," Warner said.

Industry involvement in PTEC programs faded as layoffs hit refineries and plants in 1992, Newby said. He expects that to shift as older workers leave their jobs when the economy improves.

"We're just sitting around like vultures around a carcass waiting for the market to come back up and then we're going to get out of here," Newby said.

Ava Dejoie, business liaison with the Louisiana Department of Education office of college and career readiness, said funding is even more of a struggle for secondary vocational programs, which share $10 million among 70 public school districts.

The larger hurdle for PTEC programs in New Orleans, Dejoie said, is that most residents drive by refineries every day but don't know what jobs are there or the wages they offer. "You don't have any shows on TV that talk about refinery work," she said.

Moving forward, Beabout at UNO said there is some question whether or not programs such as PTEC prepare students for jobs that will exist in the next 20 years or the current needs of business.

"There has forever been a desire of business to have a K-12 system do their employee training," Beabout said.

Lisa Pulizzano, director of the Louisiana Chemical Association work force development and education committee, said the need to replace workers will be immense.

"But there is no job growth, it's all going to come from attrition," Pulizzano said.

Donsereaux noted that 15 Alliance Refinery positions advertised this summer drew more than 1,000 applicants. He reminds L.B. Landry students that taking a PTEC course does not translate to a job with ConocoPhillips.

What it does, he said, is open an option that didn't exist for them before.

"At least now I can say we're giving students a chance to find out. Now it's up to them. ... That's the whole point of all of this, giving them an option. Now I feel like everything is fair. "

Source: New Orleans City Business

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