By Naomi Klouda
For many young oil company recruits, it was the first time riding a boat out on the water or spying the life forms inhabiting a tide pool.
To top it off, they watched two humpback whale families and caught halibut.
The 50 young BP Challengers hired to work for one of the world’s largest oil companies come from India, England, China, Malaysia, Columbia, the U.S. and Alaska. They are engineers, financial analysts, geologists and support professionals who spent four days in Homer last week.
“These are some of the best and brightest young professionals we could find,” said Skip Pennebaker, the BP Anchorage Challenge Network coordinator. For every position at BP, there are 20-30 applicants and only one will get the job.
“It’s very competitive. But once we hire them, we give them the technical coaching, supervision, training. We challenge them beyond,” Pennebaker said Thursday. “This is our development and training program in their first three years to help foster their growth in their disciplines. They are worthy of our care and concern.”
This portion of the three-year training was an all-expense paid trip to Homer, where they stayed at Land’s End. It’s not a vacation, but rather a giant outdoor classroom.
While here, they were taken to Jakalof Bay to learn about tide pools from Carmen and Conrad Field. This is the 15th year the biologist-naturalist couple have led field trips for BP.
“We had them out there at the lowest tide of the year on their hands and knees looking at tidal pools where every square inch has 2-3 species living in it,” Pennebaker said. “They’ve never before done that with world class biologists. Conrad picked up a rock and showed them 32 different species living underneath it.”
Because their work is in developing crude oil and natural gas reserves in Alaska, the environmental education is crucial in the BP Challengers Program, Pennebaker said.
The idea for lessons in ocean ecology originated with Jack Montgomery, owner of Rainbow Tours. A few years after the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill, Montgomery took a BP executive on guided tours of the Bay.
“He liked to tide pool, and his fascination led to our discussions about his job and how they could bring these top talented people from around the world to Alaska to work in the oil patch,” Montgomery recalled. “Fran and I were involved in the oil spill. We know the benefits on one side and the bad on the other. When the oil hits the beach, the intertidal zone goes.”
Montgomery proposed showing them what happens when oil hits the beach, what dies.
“He jumped on it, got permission and we started doing it. It’s worked into a wonderful thing for the community now because BP comes to share and teach them,” he said.
Pennebaker continued the annual trek to Kachemak Bay for the past 15 years.
They select Homer for a number of reasons, including its proximity to Cook Inlet. BP does not have oil or gas field investment in the inlet and isn’t interested in this area. But here they can do a business exercise among the young challengers, he said.
For the first year of the trip, Pennebaker scheduled a community service project. Kevin Dee and Patty Dolesce, directors of the Ageya Wilderness Education Center, operate a camp spread across 80 acres. Eighth graders from rural schools who are failing in their Annual Yearly Progress scores are accepted into this federally funded science/nature camp for 24 days. Other education groups, and the Homer environmental community, use the facility for what Dee hopes will become a center for ecological learning. Also of use are the yurts, a planned wind tower and a high tunnel for sustainability projects Dee hopes to share with the entire community for learning purposes.
In order to prepare for the summer, there’s a variety of tasks including setting up day tents used for classrooms.
“I wanted to bring them here for a community service project to give back to the community of Homer,” Pennebaker said.
The 50 challengers split into five groups on Thursday at Ageya, located off East Hill Road. They rebuilt a dirt road, set up tents, hauled futons to Yurts, sharpened pencils and loaded notebooks.
“They saved our staff as much as three days work,” Dee said.
Kelsey Pratt, one of the challenger participants, said all of these activities help round her out. She was raised in Anchorage, graduating from South Anchorage High in 2006. After graduating from the University of Nevada with a degree in supply chain logistics in 2010, she was hired at BP. She is 23 years old.
“The training is structured in a way to give us a taste of each function in the oil business. I work in supply logistics, and it’s important to look at all the pieces of the puzzle all the way across the supply chain from the rigs to the smallest equipment,” Pratt said. “Then you take it apart and look at it again in a more structured way. I think the Challenger program gives us the skill set to be applied to these kinds of problems.”
Friends fresh out of college comment on this extra training, attention and trips that Pratt enjoys.
“So many are struggling to get a job in their fields,” she said. “When they’re hired, they aren’t usually mentored and developed like this. I do feel very lucky.”
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