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Strengthening the Feedstock of Incoming Talent for the Oil and Gas Industry

I always look forward to the start of a new year and the tradition of setting new goals, professionally and personally. It provides an opportunity for new beginnings and to make any corrections, if needed, to the direction of one’s career and self-development. In my first column of the new year, I want to discuss my focus area of Strengthening the Feedstock of Incoming Talent because I believe that our industry needs a change in direction in order to succeed with this ambitious goal.

There are growing concerns among industry professionals and academia about the declining ambitions toward a career in the oil and gas industry by our younger generation. Data compiled by McKinsey and Company in 2018 (www.mckinsey.com)

show that over the past decade, the oil and gas industry has dropped from being the 14th most attractive industry among engineering and IT students down to 35th. The report also concluded, “Given the need for talent, it is critical for the O&G industry to deepen and diversify its pool.”

Before exploring how to attract top talent, we must determine what type of talent our industry needs today and into the future. In SPE’s online training course, “Introduction to the Digital Oilfield,” the renowned instructor Tony Edwards states that the digital revolution of our industry now requires “strong generalists who understand the value chain, the big picture, and also have great communication skills.” He further states, “If there was ever a need for a different workforce—a diverse workforce, the time is now.”

What factors are hampering our efforts to attract this much-needed diverse talent? What course corrections are required to get our industry headed in the right direction? I believe there are three main challenges with attracting the next generation of engineers and geoscientists—negative public perception, unattractive business models, and inadequate opportunities for work-life balance.

The first and most apparent challenge is negative public perception. I am very proud of the progress our industry has made to elevate corporate citizenship, and to reduce carbon emissions. I am also proud to be part of the global solution to end energy poverty. Our industry and SPE have been working very hard on public education, although it has not been easy. We all need to learn how to have effective conversations about what our industry does and how we provide solutions that increase our quality of life. We need to put away the PowerPoint presentations and tell our stories. In my December column, I referenced how research has shown that people are more likely to recall statistics when they are built into a storyline. In an October 2019 McKinsey article, “How women can help fill the oil and gas industry’s talent gap,” they advised, “Build a persuasive narrative. Given the widespread public interest in renewable energies and concern about the role of fossil fuels in climate change, O&G companies have an uphill battle in making a case for their industry. How can they attract talented people to what is increasingly perceived as a  ‘dirty’ industry? Companies need to articulate a positive narrative to graduates and entry-level hires on how the sector can promote economic development and help manage the transition to the energy system of the future.”

Articulating industry contributions to society is a large part of SPE’s 2018 Strategic Plan. SPE recently launched “Energizing Our Lives” (https://www.spe.org/en/energizing-lives/), which includes a blog titled “Fueling Progress” where members can share stories about all the ways our industry improves the global quality of life. SPE is also dedicating more funding and resources to our Energy4Me program for pre-university students and teachers. Today’s oil and gas professionals are developing the world’s most advanced technologies and using them to solve the Earth’s most significant challenges faster than ever in our history. We have to find ways to tell that story to the public.

The second challenge is our business model, which is more commonly described as “boom and bust” or “hire then fire.” As with any commodity market, we cannot control global supply and demand cycles and that has produced a history of staffing levels that are just as cyclical. Many companies increase the amount of staff when commodity prices are good and then have massive layoffs during the downturns. The latter makes newspaper headlines. Not only do these business models deter young talent from wanting to join our industry, but a portion of experienced industry professionals often don’t return when the oil markets correct themselves. The impact of this on the young generation became very apparent to me when I visited schoolchildren in Midland, Texas. While this is one of the most active regions within the unconventional-shale boom, companies there struggle with attracting local young talent because they witnessed how their families and community were dramatically affected during the last downturn.

Some oil and gas companies have adopted a different business model—running a leaner organization in terms of staffing regardless of the cycles. I am proud to say that I work for a company that did not reduce staff during the last downturn. The engineers that did not have rigs to run or wellsites to build were temporarily utilized elsewhere within the company. I use this example of my organization to illustrate to my peers that alternative ways of responding to business cycles can be successful. Alternate staffing models will be most challenging for service providers and drilling companies, which have the greatest volatility in staffing needs through boom and bust. During my travels, I have been encouraged to learn that some of our industry’s prominent service providers are working to mitigate the loss of talent they have invested in training during the price downturns. Lack of job security is not going to appeal to the innovative minds that we need to make the necessary advancements for our industry’s future.

During my term as President and even beyond, I will be actively engaging companies to seek better solutions for staffing stability and to promote those that do heartily. I will provide opportunities for those companies to tell their stories on how they succeeded and encourage others to adopt similar practices.

The third challenge, an inadequate work-life balance, is not only diminishing our ability to attract talent but, in my opinion, is also the reason that we are struggling in our efforts to increase cultural and gender diversity. In my engineering career, I have been tasked with solving complex problems, but the greatest challenge has been balancing my career while raising two daughters alongside a working spouse. There are many roles within the industry that are hard for a working parent to hold, especially for single parents. I entered this industry knowing this and accepted the fact that there were roles or job opportunities I would have to turn down because I needed a healthy work-life balance. Times have changed, and the incoming generation is choosing careers that ensure they don’t have to make the decisions that I did in order to have this balance.

According to Ryan Jenkins, who is a speaker and expert on the Millennial and Gen Z generations, “Millennials value work-life balance over meaningful work and job progression.” In an August 2018 article on Forbes.com, it was stated: “In our research, 88% [Gen Z’s] cited being happy, and 73% cited having a good work-life balance as the biggest measures of success.” Finally, the McKinsey study I previously referenced recommended to “create and communicate to young workers the possibility of flexible career paths. Developing such pathways will benefit both men and women, but women probably a bit more, setting them up for future success. Consider creating clear career paths that allow people to step out of operational or frontline roles depending on their circumstances. If young workers can see a way to balance career and family, they may be more likely to want to stay.” The digital transformation of our industry is enabling companies to revise roles and positions to offer better flexibility for work-life balance. How­ever, I am wondering if we are doing enough to keep pace with the needs of the next generation. One of my objectives as your President during my visits with professional members and corporate supporters is to encourage more rapid adoption of initiatives for better work-life balance.

In summary, if we are to strengthen the feedstock of incoming talent into our industry, we need to provide a feeling of belonging, making a difference, job security, and work-life balance. This is a tall order for an industry that is not known for providing any of these elements. This is a significant change in direction compared to where our industry has traveled for decades. We must change course to ensure that our future workforce is the most talented, diverse, and innovative. If we cannot get the necessary talent into our industry, our future may be history.

Strengthening the Feedstock of Incoming Talent for the Oil and Gas Industry

Shauna Noonan, 2020 SPE President

01 January 2020

Volume: 72 | Issue: 1

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