x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Critics: Kuwait's oil firm does poor job of training engineers

The giant oil conglomerate has "refused to fund" university initiatives that could help produce a generation of highly trained Kuwaitis, says an assistant professor at Kuwait University's chemical engineering department.

KUWAIT CITY // Kuwait Petroleum Corporation (KPC) is facing a bleak future because an expansion of its workforce is not being matched by investment in training, a Kuwaiti academic said yesterday.

Kuwait University sends students to KPC for training and "they don't do quality training," said Khalid Mahdi, an assistant professor at Kuwait University's chemical engineering department. "They just take attendance."

"This is a disaster. They are not taking it seriously," Mr Mahdi said.

The giant oil conglomerate has "refused to fund" university initiatives, such as high-tech laboratories and computers that could help produce a generation of highly trained Kuwaitis.

The only funding KPC gives to the country's sole public university is for some research and consultation programmes "but they do not have direct educational investment", Mr Mahdi said.

"If they were smart enough, they would have invested in [the students'] education while they are in the college," instead of spending a fortune to train engineers after they are recruited, he said.

"Wasta is everywhere" in the recruitment process, Mr Mahdi, a Kuwaiti, said, using the Arabic word that can mean connections. The corporation will be hurt by its policies when "the old crowd retires" and the next generation of ill-prepared engineers try to take over.

"This is my gloomy picture of the oil sector in Kuwait," he said.

The warning comes just days after Farouk Al Zanki, KPC's chief executive officer, said the corporation's workforce would expand by 30 per cent by 2030. KPC now employs 17,100 full-time staff and about 40 per cent of new recruits are usually from the engineering sector.

Mr Al Zanki said this week during a conference organised by MEED, a business intelligence resource, that KPC "undoubtedly suffers from a shortage of engineers" and training the workforce is the "most critical" factor in its long-term strategy.

Even if KPC's training methods are being questioned at the university, news that thousands of new engineering positions could be created will be welcomed on campus.

"During the last two or three years" the university's college of engineering has admitted between 1,000 and 1,100 students, and this is "way beyond our capacity", said Khaled Al Fadhel, the vice dean for student affairs. About half that figure is normally admitted.

"This is going to saturate the job market," Mr Al Fadhel said.

Academics say the unprecedented demand for places in Kuwait University is the result of population growth and improving exam results. Earlier this year - after intense government pressure - the university admitted more students than ever before.

Despite the anticipated influx of engineering graduates, Kuwait's oil sector could struggle to find local talent in petroleum engineering because only about 6 per cent of engineering students focus on this speciality.

Ali Akbar, the chairman of the university's petroleum engineering department and member of Kuwait's supreme petroleum council, said he has run courses that "reform" engineers from other disciplines into petroleum specialists and many of KPC's top management are his former students.

The petroleum engineering department has grown from 170 students a few years ago to 227 this year, Mr Akbar said. He expects the expansion to continue until the department has about 400 students.

Even though the university is training more engineers than ever, Mr Mahdi said female engineers - who make up about half of the departments graduates - "are not welcome in the oil company", because many of the organisation's conservative employees do not want to see women working.

KPC finds female recruits "a tidy office" and keeps them away from operations, he said. "We are creating a culture of lazy people."

Mr Akbar said in addition to graduates and "reformed" engineers, KPC will need many foreigners in the future and the "expatriates they need are the experienced ones" because the engineering challenges facing the corporation are so complex.

To encourage foreigners to join the company, the conglomerate will have to contend with a reputation for promoting Kuwaitis ahead of expatriates.

An Indian engineer, who has worked for Petrochemical Industries Company, one of KPC's subsidiaries, for several years, said "the system of grooming Kuwaitis is totally different than that for grooming expatriates".

"We can only hope to be promoted to a supervisor - never a team leader," he complained. "It's very bad for the company's efficiency and morale."

Mr Mahdi said preferential treatment of Kuwaitis who "do nothing" over hard-working expatriates is bad for KPC's efficiency. He calls for a "just system" of promotions.

"I do believe in localisation - fine - however, I should never ignore the need for diversity in the organisation," he said.

 

jcalderwood@thenational.ae