Theodore Lewis

Professor Theodore Lewis

Franklin Khan, Minister of Energy and Energy Industries, recently announced a mentorship programme in his ministry at a conference held at the Hyatt. It is an exclusive programme, made known to the public after the fact, candidates having already been chosen at the time of the programme’s roll-out.

Minister Khan was quick to deflect credit for the programme away from himself to the Prime Minister, whom he said has a vision for the creation of a “cadre of energy professionals” and who had asked him, “Where is the next generation of energy leaders?” This is not a vision that the Prime Minister has aired publicly. Given that it is a statement attached to what has been the lifeblood of this country, it would have been significant. Franklin Khan was privy to this, apparently, and had an answer for the PM. And the answer was not Laventille or Sea Lots. Nor the trainline in Marabella. Not ordinary citizens with dreams of inheriting what is our earth.

Minister Khan, rather, explained the programme he has designed in response to the Prime Minister’s apparent musing, as follows: “To be eligible the graduates must have attained qualifications in energy sector disciplines following the award of National Scholarships and/or graduated from their respective energy sector fields of study with First Class Honours or at the Masters Level with Distinction. The initial programme will comprise 40 graduates. The Ministry has identified 27 graduates with the requisite qualification within its current employ and through the Scholarship Division of the Ministry of Education has identified 13 candidates to achieve the complement of 40 participants.”

So this was basically a closed shop. National scholarship winners, and ministry insiders. Among them are 30 national scholars.

What about the youth whose parent just emailed me a screen shot of his degree in engineering, having completed his work at UWI? He is unemployed and had no idea that there was this internship programme. In any case, he could not have gotten into it. This kind of backroom approach to privilege is frustrating to those who just put their heads down and work hard. A national scholarship winner should not get any special privilege, again, over those who did not win scholarships but went through on their own.

You mean that national scholars still need government breaks — still need State sponsorship of their careers? They can’t go out on their own to establish companies or consultancies, to blaze new trails? You have non-national scholars selling cake and sweetbread to make money to pay their fees. Yet national scholars appear to have lifetime entitlement to the public dole, ahead in line of other citizens who paid their way. Are they now to be groomed to inherit the earth, and the oil and gas which issue from it?

The confusion that Minister Khan’s mentorship scheme provides in me is, how does it square with the Government’s divestment of Petrotrin, pushing it into the arms of Wilfred Espinet and the private sector? Why is the Government, amid the withdrawal from State control of oil refining, and the dispersal and abandonment of the human capital that underpinned Petrotrin, now interested in creating a cadre of elite energy types at the same time as it sheds its interests? Should that not be the task for the private sector, not the people, and the Government we put in power, to build its own store of human capital to operate and manage the new privately controlled energy sector?

This is just baffling. There is a timing issue here. We did not do this when Petrotrin was under the control of the State. Why are we doing it now?

What is there in this for the Government?

This looks, unwittingly, like preparation for after divestment. Minister Khan must be careful that this is not perceived by the public to be him facilitating the training of a new would-be private sector class of energy entrepreneurs and managers…at the expense of taxpayers. The Government cannot be involved in the creation of an entrepreneurial class of people for the energy sector.

The unions indeed have a stake in the divestment, because workers with years of experience in energy, are out in the rain.

When the State decided to abandon sugar, Basdeo Panday stood up for those he called “sugar workers”, insisting that they get land and other gratuities. He and the UNC even built a technical college, the TTIT, to help train the children of sugar workers for jobs in energy across the street from Brechin Castle.

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Oil workers are finding that they have no political party to turn to as their lives and careers go down the toilet. We have not heard a political voice saying anything about compensation for energy workers, special career training for them, and their offspring. Nothing about land. No energy back-pay.

Mr Khan and energy czar Espinet have not synchronised their messages lately, given the Paria Fuel Trading Company brouhaha. Neither is a national scholar, but they are the two most powerful managers of our energy resource—still the primary basis of our development. My own view is that energy workers have been left out in the rain. They should be central to any human resource planning, because within them inheres the critical knowledge that comes with long years of hands-on experience in tending our energy resource.

Minister Khan is more than fortunate to be leading both the PNM as chair, and the industry most critical to our economic growth. It cannot be reconciled with the current energy posture of divestment and privatisation. It avoids the transparency that should come at this critical time, with the lives of so many energy workers in tatters. These mentorship candidates smell like members of a privileged club, who are being groomed to wrest control of energy away from the people.

The Winford James column returns next week.

THE AUTHOR grew up in Marabella which has become a ghost town since the state pulled the plug on Petrotrin.

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