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The long road to the rig

New entrants to Aramco’s upstream arm are trained to be multi-skilled

Up to 250 young Saudis each year will have the experience of planning the development of an oil well and operating a jack-up rig before they have even reached a well head in the desert or offshore Saudi Arabia. Such is the advanced equipment available in the company's Upstream Professional Development Center (UPDC) in the Dhahran administration complex. Sitting in a large chair, with control leavers on the arms, young Saudis can learn to operate a cyber rig, coping with challenges created by instructors.

"In any sort of drilling operation, before you head out to the rig site to drill a well, we train you and you have to get a certification," says Has Malik, one of the instructors. "When we are training, we create different sorts of scenarios on the simulation panel. When you are drilling, we are going to induce something from here. Sometimes, for instance, a gas bubble comes from the formation inside the well. You have to recognise what is happening inside the well by looking at the pressure gauges," and take the right action. With a real jack-up rig costing up to $400,000 a day to operate, the simulator, not unlike the ones used in the aviation industry, makes good financial sense.

Inside UPDC there are a range of 4-D imaging environments that virtually immerse trainees inside oil and gas reservoirs deep underground, along with touch-screen computerised core sample analysis tools where they can plan and work out the costs of potential drilling programmes. Also available are samples of various rock structures taken from far below the earth's surface that they can study and evaluate.

The selection process for recruits to UPDC begins in secondary school. "We sponsor top-notch high school students from across the kingdom to study petroleum engineering and geosciences in Saudi universities and abroad," Salam Salamy, senior petroleum engineering consultant, says. "When they come back, they join the workforce, so we have to be prepared to train them."

The training process changes in step with new challenges faced by the industry. "We are moving into more complex operations that require new technology and therefore different types of training," says Salamy. "We no longer drill vertical wells. In the past, you had to justify drilling a horizontal well. Now it is the reverse. Horizontal wells have become the norm. We are moving to new frontiers: unconventional resources, deepwater drilling that require different technology and training."

The whole training approach has changed as well. "We no longer work in silos, we work in multi-disciplinary asset teams," says Salamy. "You have petroleum engineers, with all their various specialisations, working with geoscientists. They need a basic idea of each other's discipline. All employees have to have a good understanding of the fundamentals of petroleum engineering and geosciences."

On the job training

After an initial seven-week training period, the young entrants spend three-to-five years on an advanced training programme, with 80pc of the instruction done on the job. At this point they become independent contributors who can work with minimal supervision.

When all the training is complete, they join the career professionals.

But before they head off to take charge of a rig they need to obtain their well control certification, sitting in that big chair in front of the cyber rig in Dhahran and coping with the problems that the instructors throw at them. "If they do not pass the certification, they are allowed on the rig, but they cannot make decisions on their own," Salamy says. And even if they do pass, they will be back in that chair after two years to make sure their standards have not slipped.

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