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Great job in the pipeline

The offshore oil and gas industry may not fuel enthusiasm, but first and third years are finding out that it can be very exciting, Judy Mackie reports.

The clinically clean room hums with the sound of equipment. Wall panels, bristling with switches, wink their tiny red and green lights. On the big black control console, a computer screen flashes complex technical images at the touch of a button. Suddenly a siren screams, sparking a flurry of activity among the room's occupants. Five first-year pupils look suitably alarmed, their eyes searching the panels for a sign of what's wrong. Gas leak? Fire? The onus is on them to find out.

The youngsters from Harlaw Academy, Aberdeen, are on a two-day course with Aberdeen Skills and Enterprise Training, a subsidiary company of Aberdeen College. This afternoon they are in the Brent Bravo Platform control room simulator. The Mobil North Sea Opito Oil and Gas Taster pilot is achieving its aim of imparting some of the excitement of the offshore energy industry.

As the participants discover, it buzzes with drama and superlatives, with gargantuan offshore structures, mega-buck investments, cutting-edge technology developments and out-of-the-box thinking. It offers a range of global career opportunities for school leavers and graduates, promising high rates of pay, a variety of employee benefits and a quality working environment. Yet it remains relatively low on the list of career choices for UK young people and there is a lack of young recruits particularly within the offshore technician and engineering disciplines.

Bodies such as Opito, the national training organisation for oil and gas extraction, and the UK Offshore Operators Association know it is perceived as a dirty, sunset industry which is careless of the environment and offers few opportunities for women and that it has to compete for young workers against the lure of more glamorous sectors such as the media, finance and leisure. The oil and gas taster course is one of the latest initiatives to address the problem.

"We want to say to youngsters, 'Forget the myths'. The offshore industry has a tremendous future. It's high-tech, very safe, very environmentally aware and it offers great career opportunities for both sexes," explains Martin Tims, manager of Exxon Mobil's UK environment and education programmes.

The course, which the organisers hope will develop into an industry-wide model, has a busy agenda. It features a visit to the oil and gas company's headquarters and an opportunity to meet young people performing a variety of jobs; a view of offshore safety training at the RGIT Montrose survival centre, where trainees are seen escaping underwater as if from a ditched helicopter; a visit to a simulator at the Deutag Advanced Rig Training Centre, where virtual drilling operations hundreds of feet below the seabed can be directed from a space-age chair; and hands-on experience in an electrical generation simulator at ASET's base as well as the Brent Bravo Platform control room simulator.

It has been piloted with two of Mobil's local link schools, Harlaw Academy and Peterhead Academy, and two age groups, first years and third years, in parties of 12. Susan Smart of Opito explains: "We're interested in finding out which age of student benefits most, so that we can develop an effective model.

"The third years from Peterhead have already chosen science and technical subjects for their Standard grades, but are undecided about which industry they want to enter. That's given us the opportunity to show them the range of options available within the oil and gas sector.

"Today's younger group, from Harlaw Academy, haven't yet made their subject choices. We hope their experience on the course will leave them with a positive impression of the industry, which may well influence their choices when the time comes."

Just as there was a barrage of questions throughout the exercise, feedback from the 12-year-old pupils comes fast and furious.

"It's incredible how many jobs we've heard about," says Sarah Riddell. "People think that women work in oil companies just as secretaries, so I was pleased to see how many women were doing technical work."

"I hardly knew anything about it, but I think it's really interesting because there are so many things you can do," says Hannah Pirie.

"It's surprising how much money goes into the industry," Edward Marr remarks. "The simulators alone cost millions."

Harlaw's principal teacher of chemistry, David Leishman, is just as enthusiastic about the course. "We've all enjoyed it. It has really opened our eyes and I think it has probably achieved its purpose in making the pupils think the industry is a good direction in which to go.

"I've picked up lots of material that I can add to my class teaching, particularly the hydrocarbons part of the syllabus.

"A course like this would be beneficial to any teacher interested in seeing the working environment first-hand."

For details of the course contact Lavinia Carr, Mobil North Sea, tel 01224 855429Opito, tel 01224 787800

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