The 2010 discovery of shale oil and shale gas here in the Neuquén province of Argentina seemed to offer opportunity for young people like 27-year-old Ramiro Peña who competed for low-paying jobs on farms and in town.

Yet, employment remained elusive for local residents in San Patricio del Chañar, a quiet Patagonian town. From preparing the well site to piping the oil and gas to market, most of the new jobs in the shale fields required technical training. Workers from all over the world flocked to the region.

Local people dreamt of such jobs, but the nearest town where they could receive technical training  was the provincial capital, a 90-minute drive away.

In 2013 Shell, the local employment office and the mayor of San Patricio del Chañar decided to launch a joint training programme. Ramiro and 138 other people signed up for the first set of classes.

“The industry is difficult to enter,” said Peña, who completed a course in plant operations and now helps to test wells for a living. “The course gave me a chance.”

Transformation

In 2013, drilling rigs dotted the landscape. Residents did not understand how to take advantage of the opportunity, recalled Ramón Soto, the town’s mayor.

Once Shell had begun drilling the first of 12 wells in the Vaca Muerta (“Dead Cow”) formation, the company’s representatives explored ways to help the community.

After several meetings with the mayor and other local people, two different training programmes operated by Shell contractors took shape. They have enrolled 286 students over two years; 193 of these have graduated.

Using hammers, welding machines, safety masks and other supplies provided by the municipality, one programme offers certification for adult students who want to work in the welding and electrical trades.

The other programme prepares students for specific jobs in the energy industry, such as working on a drilling rig or inspecting equipment. About half of the 500-hour course focuses on core subjects in science and mathematics. Safety and appropriate workplace behaviour are recurring themes.

For 35-year-old Natalia Merenda, the courses have opened up new possibilities for her family and community. She is excited by the opportunity to become one of the few Argentinian women in the energy industry. And she is eager to learn.

Natalia is studying logistics in the programme’s second year. She expects that knowing how an oil pump works will be important in her chosen career of purchasing or co-ordinating oilfield supplies.

“San Patricio has grown a lot,” said Merenda. “I think people are very hopeful for the future.” 

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