Open letter to the PM and Board of Petrotrin
Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley

Dear Sirs,

I write as a concerned citizen and former employee of Petrotrin regarding the decision to close the Pointe-a-Pierre refinery.

I am sure that this decision was not an easy one for either the Board of Petrotrin or for the Government and that it was taken in the belief that it would be better in the long run for the country.

I cannot help but wonder though, whether, in arriving at the decision, due consideration was given to the wider socio-economic issues beyond the company’s bottom line, and the future growth and development of the country, particularly for our young people.

While we have had closures before in other industries, the sheer magnitude of the refinery shutdown in terms of socio-economic fallout is mind-boggling since virtually every business—small, medium, and large throughout the Central and South in particular— will be drastically affected. This will trickle down to virtually every person eventually throughout the country with horrific health and social implications.

But bad as that is, there is another critical fallout which I believe no one has considered: the role of the refinery in technical manpower development in T&T.

Simply put: closing the refinery will remove the top-level technical jobs available to our people, but worse, it will remove the opportunity for young people to develop world-class, globally in-demand technical skills. Do we really want such a limited future for our youth? Over the last 100 years, T&T has developed a global reputation for highly skilled workers in every aspect of the energy business.

There is no country in the world involved in the petroleum business that has not/does not tap into our technical manpower base and this includes operators, service providers, and construction contractors. Whilst at MIC, I was present in a meeting with Kellog, Brown & Root (KBR), one of the world’s largest construction firms, who told us that one of the first things they do when they land a major contract is to visit Trinidad to source their skilled workers.

Not long ago, the second largest construction firm in India came to Trinidad to seek partnerships with local service providers to access our skills after landing a multi-billion dollar contract in Ghana.

All the oil producing nations of Africa have visited T&T no less than three times each over the last 15 years to learn from us.

‘The refinery—the primary on-the-job training ground’

Since the mid-1940s, the training which the oil industry has provided has been mainly responsible for the development of that skills reputation. Others have also contributed (eg, Caroni, T&TEC) but for sheer scope, depth, and breadth of training opportunities the oil industry kept us at the forefront in terms of numbers trained level of technology, and scope of disciplines. And, among the oil companies, the refinery itself would have stood out above all else because of the extent of equipment and processes involved.


It is important to know, Sirs, that, although the industry itself will still be here with or without the refinery, the training opportunities will disappear since the upstream multinationals (BP, BG, Repsol, BHP Billiton etc) do not participate in any meaningful way in providing trainees with the on-the-job training opportunities.

It is also useful to note the same applies to all the plants in Point Lisas who do virtually no on-the-job training.

Given their relatively small employee base (300-400 per plant) they view the setting up of training facilities and organisation structure required as not economically feasible.

It is noteworthy that the refinery at Pointe-a-Pierre in terms of size and number of plants, and manpower, is the equivalent of virtually all the plants in Point Lisas put together.

Without the on-the-job exposure, the training is largely incomplete as competencies cannot be fully attained in classrooms and labs. To develop a competent worker requires both institutional learning and industry learning.

Without either, training will be incomplete.

In 1982, Texaco closed all its training schemes, cutting off the most significant technical manpower supply to the industry, and indeed, to the country. By 1995, when the human resource capital built up over the previous decades was exhausted, the leaders in the petrochemical industry will well remember the fight to secure highly skilled workers to facilitate the rapid expansion. Poaching was the order of the day and was responsible in large measure for the rapid rise in wages and salaries in the sector.

Despite the intervention of the various governments since 1995 to fill the training gap left by Texaco, et al, through the establishment of excellent training facilities and programmes (MIC-NSDP, NESC, TTIT, UTT) costing in the billions, the absence of meaningful onthe-job training where the competencies are really developed has meant that the objective of producing ready-to-work outputs of the highest calibre has not been fully realised.

The refinery—as the primary on-the-job training ground for T&T’s skilled technical experts—is critical for keeping our manpower at the forefront of technological development.

‘Honest, open, meaningful dialogue needed among stakeholders’

All will know that an apprenticeship certificate from Texaco, and later from its successor companies was a passport to any developed country. Shutting down the refinery will remove this critical component from our ability to produce highly skilled Craftsmen, Technicians, Technologists, and Engineers and, by extension, reduce drastically the opportunities for high skills development and maintaining that pride of place we have/had in the global village.

Two years ago, a close friend visited Aruba on holiday and remarked quite casually to a taxi driver that he did not see many young people around. The driver replied that, since the closure and removal of the refineries, there have been very limited opportunities for the youth, who could only look forward to driving taxis, manning a table at the casinos 1or becoming store clerks. The higher order jobs had disappeared.

With the absence of the refinery, it is not difficult to project the youth of T&T being in the same position in 20 years—not a pretty picture at all.

The closure of the refinery following the closure of Caroni and the inability to make the cocoa/ coffee industry into a major manufacturing activity means, in effect, we have been slowly removing the opportunities for the higher profile jobs. We are squandering the advantages we were so generously bestowed.

Mr Prime Minister, the Board of any business must put the bottom line ahead of everything else to ensure the survival of the business.

A government, on the other hand, must be concerned about where the country will be in the future and especially what opportunities will exist for its people and, in particular, its youth.

Sirs, the fallout from the closure of the refinery is simply too horrific to comprehend and requires yet another honest, open, and meaningful dialogue among all the stakeholders to find a better alternative.

I join with the tens of thousands of people who will be affected in beseeching you to think again before implementing this extreme decision.

HARRIS KHAN,

Petrotrin retiree who was responsible for training at Texaco/ Trintoc/Petrotrin, and at the executive level in the establishment of all of the major training initiatives in T&T over the last 25 years (MIC/NSDP, NESC, TTIT, UTT).