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Volume 16, Number 1January/February 1965

In This Issue

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In the classrooms of the Industrial Training Centers, Aramco workers find…

A Path To Progress

Written by William Tracy

In a brightly lighted classroom on the second floor of the gray brick building down the hill from Dhahran's hospital complex, some 15 students raised their voices in a curious, clipped chant: "Peter went to the meat market this morning. Peter went to the meat market this morning. Peter went to the meat market this morning." After a pause for a brief word from a teacher they began again, practicing in unison the differing inflections by which the English language achieves much of its emphasis: "Peter went to..."

Next door another group of students discussed the lives of famous people. "It seems to me," said one, "that Florence Nightingale was one of the few who really cared. Even though women at that time were not supposed to be in such places or see such sights, she went anyway and ..."

Downstairs, a teacher in rimless glasses asked for the square root of 1,521 and nodded at a student whose hand shot up immediately. "It's 39," said the student, and went on to explain how he had arrived at the answer so quickly. "Since 40 times 40 is 1,600 it seemed logical to try one figure less, particularly since multiplying the last nines gave at least one correct figure as a check ..."

In a fourth room, students, one by one, ran through a list of word combinations designed to develop a mastery of those subtle distinctions which an Arab tongue frequently finds difficult to handle: sell ... sail, seek ... sick, peel ... bill-no, pill! ..."

In the hallways outside the classrooms the voices could be heard rising and falling in an odd and sometimes amusing medley: "the meat market ... brought her nurses and told the doctors ...find the square root of any number it is necessary to ...seek... Peter...doctors... sell..."

It is a low steady sound, that medley, and one familiar to Dhahran, Abqaiq and Ras Tanura, all bases for operations of the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) in Saudi Arabia. Each of the communities has its own Industrial Training Center, a tangible expression in steel and stone of an Aramco policy: for all Saudi employes, an opportunity for training to the extent of their job needs and personal abilities.

That policy, instituted many years ago and maintained since, is not as optimistically idealistic as it sounds. To the contrary, it is a policy tested and found sound by years of experience—experience with men like Muhammad Hassan al-Mussah, an Aramco personnel advisor who delights in telling, in flawless English, what he did when he got his chance.

"That was in 1943," he begins with a smile. "I went to work as a laborer for Aramco in Dhahran. The next year I took up tea drinking."

He pauses for the inevitable "why?" and then explains. "Not many men knew English then and I knew it would be valuable for my job in the future, so every evening I'd prepare a pot of tea with lots of sugar, the way Arabs like it, you know? Then I'd invite four or five friends over who could speak at least some English, and with every cup of tea I'd serve a question in English."

Muhammad pauses at this point and grins. "At first, of course, we mangled the language, but we didn't let that bother us. It wasn't our language, after all."

Another story is told by Hassan Abdul Wahab, a graduate of Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania and host on the Aramco television program, "Your Health." In 1943, just about the time that Muhammad was taking up tea drinking seriously, Hassan decided to go to school. He was only 11 years old then, but one morning he climbed into a donkey cart in Qatif, rode some 20 miles to Dhahran, walked six miles to al-Khobar and then caught a boat back up the coast to Ras Tanura—all to start the school term.

To men like that, obviously, opportunity is all that's needed. Aramco, recognizing that fact, began to establish the training system which in one form or another has offered that opportunity to employes for 20 years and which today has finally developed into what are formally called Industrial Training Centers, and, informally, "ITC's".

The ITC concept is that training and work must be closely linked. If that were the extent of it ITC could probably be dismissed as no more than a successful vocational improvement program; the ITC system, however, is much more than that. When considered in combination with its companion, Industrial Training Shops (ITS), it provides the advantages of several programs of education offered separately in the United States: academic schooling, vocational training and adult education.

Years ago Aramco carried a much larger share of the educational load than it does now. Then it offered elementary and secondary schooling to students and also participated in a government-sponsored "Campaign Against Illiteracy," in effect an Adult Education Program for illiterate workers. As the Saudi Arab government expanded its own educational program in most areas to offer 12 years of elementary and secondary education to both boys and girls—as well as a commercial and industrial curriculum of 10 years—Aramco gradually raised its hiring requirements so that a present-day applicant for work must have completed a minimum of nine years in government schools. Once hired, however, he is given a placement test to determine what special supplementary training might benefit him for his particular job. If it appears to his immediate supervisor that he and the company can profit from a period of additional training, he is assigned to the ITC nearest his job which not only costs him nothing, but carries with it the same pay and benefits as if he were working at his job.

The matter of report cards is unique. They go, not to parents, nor to himself, but to his supervisors. Behind this is the logical belief that since it is the employe's own section or department which will make use of his increased training, the immediate supervisor ought to check his performance, advise him and, if necessary, give him a push. Job supervisors, in fact, do much more than that. Key men in the ITC operation, they are expected to keep an eye open for promising employes and take the initiative in assigning them to school whenever warranted. This interplay between man and supervisor was accurately summed up by two trainees in this brief dialogue: "Our opportunities in training depend a lot on what our supervisor decides," said one man. "But," added another immediately, "what your supervisor thinks usually depends on what you do."

Most of these training assignments are for one to two hours a day, but if the worker is a particularly promising man and his job, or the job for which he is being considered, is sufficiently demanding, he can be assigned to the school full time—at least four hours of classes plus another four hours in the library working on the heavy homework load. Such full-time trainees usually alternate periods of study at the center with equal periods on the job so as not to lose touch with their department and defeat the whole purpose of their training.

Supervisors do not take that kind of responsibility lightly. Each summer all of them go over their workers' records with ITC registrars or principals.

By such conferences and by considering the results of tests—some 2,000 were given each trimester last year—supervisors can compile a full progress report which goes on the employe's permanent personnel record. For a passing grade in ITC a worker must hit 70, but for upper level trainees, the requirements are stiffer. Even so, the failure rate is only 11 per cent. Failing students, however, usually re-enroll to make up their work in evening classes on a voluntary basis and about 79 per cent of those doing so succeed the second time. They might choose to study on their own, and tutoring is available during vacation periods, but this usually isn't recommended because of the lack of valuable classroom discussion. At ITC there are as many volunteers as there are assignees. Furthermore, there are no restrictive school hours; the centers are open from 7:30 in the morning until 8:00 at night.

Occasionally, a supervisor might receive a deficiency report based on poor preparation or excess absences, but for the 1,100 students enrolled last year, only 70 such notes were needed. In fact, most of the students display the kind of motivation and seriousness of purpose that every teacher always hopes to see, and rarely finds. In addition to the simple desire for study found in many of the men who went to work at an early age, those with several years' service with the company have the incentive of wives and families to support. They know that their classroom performance might be a stepping stone to a better job or a bigger paycheck. They know because all they have to do is look about them at some of the men who have gone through an Industrial Training Center.

One such man is Sulayman Rubaya, now a teacher in the Dhahran ITC. Eighteen years ago he was himself a trainee. Today he holds an A.B. degree in education from the American University of Beirut, in Lebanon. Another is 'Ali Qahsan, a married student with two children who moved to Beirut last fall to begin studies at the International College. Then there's 'Abd al-Ghani al-Bayyal, a handsome bachelor of 23 who wears a starched uniform with a medical department insignia on the collar. He, too, is in Beirut where he's bearing down on science. And there's also Mansur Ahmad Simbel, who has been with the company 16 years. After studying basic electricity, he moved up the ladder to the Dhahran television station, and is slated for the Williamsport Technical School in Pennsylvania where he will study electronics and TV repair.

And there are others too: Muhammad Husayn al-Yusuf, whose summer job back with Aramco last year counted toward the degree he's now working for under the Antioch (Ohio) University cooperative program; Muhammad Kurnas, who transferred to the Oil Operations Department as a boy because he felt that it offered the best opportunity, and is working there today after earning an A.B. degree in chemistry from Earlham College in Indiana; Sayf Husayn, who didn't give up when he had a "sophomore slump" at college, but took a year's leave of absence from the company and continued on his own; or the Saudi Arabian Airlines jet pilot, who, as a boy with Aramco, used to sit in class and daydream about airplanes.

These are the men who give ITC its reputation in Aramco as being a path to progress—these men, and the staff of first-rate instructors who are the heart of the program and form an international group. In the Dhahran center, for example, there are five Saudi Arabs, six Americans, and 26 other Middle Easterners from Lebanon, Jordan, the United Arab Republic and Sudan.

Courses are carefully geared to industrial needs, but the range of subject matter open to the ambitious employe is limited only by the time and ability of the individual worker. In mathematics, a 74-month program is offered, in eight levels. Arithmetic, algebra, geometry and trigonometry are all taught. In Arabic, the 72-month course follows the Saudi Arab government curriculum closely. The 45 months of science include elementary science as well as general science, biology, chemistry and physics. In the science laboratories many students learn the theoretical principles behind the phenomena they've observed on a practical basis at the hospital, the power plant, the refinery, or the oil operations lab.

Business courses include commercial mathematics, bookkeeping and accounting, as well as business procedure. Typing instructions and such social studies as "Man and Industry," geography and history are available.

For those students who are either assigned to or who volunteer to participate in ITC programs, it is not, despite all the advantages, an easy thing. For those married students who have responsibilities at home it is no simple matter to sit down and begin to study in a foreign language after having already put in a hard day's work. Yet there is no doubt that it is worth it. Between 1952 and 1963 the number of unskilled Saudi workers decreased from 74 per cent to 21 per cent, while semi-skilled workers increased from 17 per cent to 22 per cent, and skilled workers from 9 per cent to an impressive 57 per cent.

With the constant goal of better training for better performance, Aramco has tried to broaden and strengthen its program through the years, to be sure that dynamic and ambitious young men like Muhammad and Hassan, who are willing to serve tea to learn English or travel by donkey, foot, and sail to get to class, get the chance they need.

William Tracy, a teacher, writer and an experienced photographer with one book on the Middle East already published, lives in Beirut. He contributes frequently to Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 18-23 of the January/February 1965 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1965 images.