Jewels in the crown at PNG LNG

THE training of 74 Papua New Guinean nationals as candidates to take up positions at the PNG LNG project has begun, with the ultimate aim of training 150 technicians to assume key roles.

Speaking at APPEA 2011 yesterday, ExxonMobil's PNG training and national workforce development manager, Patti McNulty, told conference-goers of her pride in the candidates selected.

"I've been with ExxonMobil for about 18 years but the last two years have been the most fantastic of my career, and that has a lot to do with what we've done with this project," she said.

The road to finding candidates had been a long one with initial applications numbering more than 8000.

"To be perfectly honest, when we started out we didn't know what we were getting ourselves into. We hadn't had an experience like this in the country before, so we sort of made it up as we went along but we've had a great outcome," McNulty admitted.

"We've made a commitment to the government to nationalise the workforce and we've set fairly aggressive targets in that regard."

What the company found was that the talent pool was culturally and linguistically diverse, with about 400-600 languages spoken in PNG with English as a third or fourth language for most candidates.

Not only did the company have to find a way to whittle down the list of applicants, it had to do so with criteria which was transparent.

"There are certainly a lot of challenges by landowner groups in Papua New Guinea who believe most of the opportunities really belonged to them and we shouldn't worry about selection criteria, we shouldn't worry about meeting of eligibility requirements, we should just give the jobs to the young people from their communities," McNulty said.

"Clearly we knew that was not going to work because not all would have been able to meet the academic rigours of the training.

"As a consequence, before we started we did a lot of communication in the local community to help people try and understand why we had set the standard we had."

Once the list had been cut down to 300, ExxonMobil brought in the help of ValueEdge Consulting, which had conducted workplace assessment all over the world and was well versed in the unique challenges presented by the recruitment process.

Mark Mathieson from ValueEdge said the process had begun with a traditional approach, but that the language barrier would prove a challenge.

"We went out to the assessment centres in the country and initially started off with a traditional pencil and paper psychometric test. We recognised of course that it would have its difficulties, language being a primary barrier. It did, however, give us a rough and ready assessment," he said.

"From that we sat down and had a good hard look at the data and we were fairly broad in our cut-off scores because we knew language would impact on the overall outcome."

From that assessment, 200 candidates moved forward.

The candidates were then brought to Port Moresby to undergo further testing, but of far more interest to Mathieson was what happened when they weren't being tested.

"We decided then to get up close and personal with the candidates. We brought them to Port Moresby and we ran them through an assessment centre. Not only did that give us the opportunity to thoroughly test them, but allowed us to see how they'd cope in the city," he said.

"For some of the candidates, it was the first time they'd travelled to a large town, so there were some unique challenges there."

Further technical aptitude testing was undertaken, but Mathieson hailed the Q Test as the thing which was able to give a clearer picture of the calibre of candidates they had.

The Q Test is a tool for assessing general cognitive capacity and subsequent training potential, or "trainability", of candidates.

It has been established that performance on the Q Test was predictive of an individual's ability to successfully learn and apply complex new skills.

The language-free and culture-fair qualities of the Q Test meant the instrument was uniquely placed to provide fair and unbiased assessment.

The Q Test was distinct from traditional standardised instruments in that it assumed no previous experience with traditional paper and pencil test environments and required no verbal behaviour (written or spoken) from assessor or candidate.

Instead, test administration involved the assessor working with one candidate at a time, communicating via a series of non-verbal instructions and gestures relating to six tasks, with each task requiring candidates to perform a series of increasingly complex manipulations of physical material.

The candidates did so well after that testing, that the company had a hard time choosing who to cut loose from the program.

"We were initially going to take 60 trainees from the first intake, but because the field was so strong we ended up taking 76 and we've kept another 47 who are working with us in the Esso Highlands intern stream this year," McNulty said.

"They've been in training for 10 months, and we have 74 candidates remaining and they've almost completed the foundation skills training we run."

The foundation skills course was based on the Canadian schools curriculum, but the company hit a snag with that approach.

Applying testing according to the curriculum outline, the students averaged 90.04%, meaning the company had to make it harder to provide a challenge.

For McNulty, the success of the program was not measured in how proud she was of the trainees - she admitted a bias in that regard - but in how others began to perceive them.

"Whenever there's a VIP in town, they all want to go to the training centre to meet these remarkable young people they've heard so much about," she said.

"They're certainly the jewels in the crown of the project to this point."

The first intake will start their introduction to oil and gas training in the middle of the year, and early next year will go to Canada for advanced skills training.

The second intake process will begin in June this year and ExxonMobil is expecting more than the initial 8000 applicants this time around. For McNulty, there's a simple reason why.

"It's because word has gotten around about how we're looking after the first intake and the opportunities they're getting and I really couldn't be prouder of that."

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