By John Bayko
On a sunny, windy northern Alberta April morning under a deep blue sky, a group of high school students are hanging out in a shop yard far from class. With two months remaining in the school year, this scene may normally raise some eyebrows if it weren’t for the green hardhats and coveralls the group is wearing. Their heads look skyward to a classmate high up the derrick of a service rig as he clasps the elevators onto a stand of drill pipe. Their instructor shouts out questions to the group on the rig floor about what is happening as they trip pipe, challenging them to transform their theory into safe and efficient practice.
The event is the grand opening of the Northern Lights School Division’s Trades Exposure Centre, and the training rig where the students learn is surrounded by proud parents, community leaders, and industry representatives watching these kids in action. The rig is the student-named “Aurora 69,” donated by Ensign Energy Services in May of 2015. It’s an exciting day, and the culmination of an initiative that has been years in the making.
Ruth Isley, consultant to Northern Lights, has been one of the main catalysts for the initiative. In 2013, with a grant from the Provincial Dual Credit Strategy, Isley and the Northern Lights School District (NLSD) team consulted with students, parents, and industry to find out how the grant’s value could be maximized. “We did surveys in the high schools and 70% of the students said they wanted hands-on training in the trades,” Isley recalls. With those results the answer seemed very clear, and NLSD set out to create an appropriate pilot program.Eventually, through a gracious donation from Ensign Well Servicing, an actual service rig was acquired. This gave the program the hands-on element it needed, and watching the students in their coveralls on the rig confirms the entire initiative was the right one. “Once you align the needs of the community with the needs of the students it’s a no brainer,” explains Isley. “After the first cohort went through, we had students from that group showing up on the rig the following week! They didn’t want to leave,” laughs Isley.
A key focus for NLSC throughout the process was ensuring whatever they landed upon as a model was sustainable. As Isley points out, “Because (the program is) not funded by Alberta Education it needs to be sustainable on its own. Partnerships with industry and business are important. We have some partners who have come to the table to sign MOUs and this has given us instructors and funding on a yearly basis. Ensign has committed the rig and all its certifications for five years,” she explains. Additionally, the newly built facility generates revenue through rental opportunities for other community programs, and because the coursework was approved by Alberta Education, students receive credits which bring additional dollars to the table. This means Isley and NLSD will be able to continue to build on what has been a tremendous initial success. Since the service rig program was built, they have added opportunities for students in heavy equipment operation, plumber/pipefitter work, instrumentation, and automotive. Isley even brought in a mobile welding unit that has been an unparalleled success with kids from Grades 5 through 12.
“It’s been a really fun journey and there has been so much support and buy-in. The right people just kept coming to the plate,” recalls Isley. In fact, the benefits of the program continue to spill over into other, unanticipated areas. “One of the moms has said this program has changed her son completely. The welding unit and the rig are bringing more parents into the school than ever before. It’s brought parents and kids together,” she exclaims.