Tech Leaders

Future Job Security in Oil and Gas: Industry Leaders’ Perspectives

Cindy Reece, SPE Board of Directors, and David Ching, Phillips 66 Los Angeles Refinery

Question: Current trends suggest the number of graduating students could surpass the number of industry positions available to graduates. What would you recommend to the industry and to academia to handle this trend?

DC: The oil and gas industry has not yet had major attrition due to retiring employees. This creates a very challenging environment for graduating students. Educational institutions often focus their engineering curriculum on theory. More emphasis on the practical applications of engineering in the oil industry would be helpful. This could be accomplished with more engagement between industry, counselors/career center representatives, faculty, and student chapters of SPE, AICHE, ASME, SWE, and other professional societies.

CR: In August 2013, I co-chaired an SPE-sponsored Forum Series meeting on the need to ensure an appropriately educated upstream-engineering workforce in 2020 and beyond. We produced a white paper from the Forum (SPE 169906-WP) outlining both the challenges and suggested solutions, and giving some background and global projections on the supply and demand of petrotechnical professionals. Although regional resourcing pressures exist near term in Sub-Saharan Africa, the US, and the Middle East/North Africa, by 2020 our industry may have a talent gap rather than a people shortage. Gaps in both technical and nontechnical skills could be barriers for the effective petroleum engineer of the future. Industry will need to accelerate competency development capabilities to help fill these talent gaps, while petroleum engineering departments are starting to cap enrollment to maintain the quality of their programs. A very important aspect of the Forum was that SPE brought together representatives from both the industry and academia to collaborate on solutions to our current resourcing challenges.

Question: A large number of petroleum industry workers are over age 50. How can the industry reduce the knowledge/experience gap that arises as these workers retire? How aggressively should the industry hire young professionals/recent graduates?

DC: Hiring additional recent graduates will help some, but industry should also focus on providing existing employees accelerated learning experiences through a formalized mentoring system, group projects, enhanced training programs, networking opportunities with industry experts, and thorough documentation of successful work processes/experiences.

CR: As I mentioned, industry is trying to accelerate competency development through numerous and varied efforts. Some companies are engaging their retirees to continue in a mentoring role after they retire. Many are using technology to try to capture their workforce’s knowledge to be able to share on an as-needed basis. SPE is also active in this area with initiatives such as PetroWiki and the “Getting Up to Speed” paper series on specific topics.

Question: Graduate degrees garner only marginally higher starting salaries. Do you see this changing? What advantage is there to having a graduate degree?

DC: If you’re interested in research, you need a graduate degree. However, practical working knowledge, problem solving, and good, effective working relationship and communication skills are key attributes for success. They can all be developed with an undergraduate degree.

CR: Pursuing an advanced degree is a very personal choice, with long-term consequences. Depending on where you live, you may need an advanced degree for an entry-level position, if you want to pursue a research career, or if you want additional longer-term options such as teaching later in your career. I have always been a big fan of obtaining multiple credentials as they expand your options in an ever-changing world.

Question: Most industry professionals value a challenging job as well as a good salary and benefits. How can the industry attract and retain YPs/recent graduates?

DC: The petroleum industry includes numerous functional disciplines with satisfying and challenging jobs for engineers. These include highly technical fields such as design engineering, research and development, mechanical integrity, and equipment maintenance. Other fields include project development, operations, maintenance, environmental, safety, procurement, economics, strategic planning, construction, business development, commercial sales, and management. It is often in the industry’s best interest to fill these positions with candidates with technical backgrounds.

CR: According to Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” motivational theory, basic physical needs must be satisfied before higher-level needs such as job satisfaction come into play. High-paying jobs may initially attract people to our industry but longer term the need to “self-actualize” is paramount. And with careers spanning 35 to 40 years, you better have some fun while you are working. We see our industry trying to respond to changing business and social norms to make the workplace as friendly and enjoyable as possible while still meeting business needs. This is being done to attract and retain talent that is very costly to replace.

Question: How can students differentiate themselves from others in the applicant pool?

DC: Employers look for candidates who have demonstrated they can perform their work efficiently and effectively. You need sound problem-solving skills, basic technical knowledge, good working relationships, and effective communication skills. At college, you can build these abilities through technical work experience, internships, and extracurricular activities and assignments.

CR: When I recruited engineers on campus, I always looked for students who went beyond what was required—people who made a difference on and off campus. Such students typically exhibit independent critical thinking, apply problem-solving skills to address everyday issues, and can interact in a productive way with anyone.

Question: How does the petroleum industry’s future look in relation to other energy resources? How does this affect petroleum students and YPs?

DC: World energy demand continues to grow. Even with an increasing amount of alternative energy resources, petroleum oil remains the most efficient source of energy. Also, oil is used to produce a huge range of everyday consumer products. Until a new energy source is discovered or an alternative energy source can be provided much more economically, oil is expected to continue as our primary source of energy.

CR: Most energy forecasts predict that hydrocarbons will be our primary source of energy for many years to come. These hydrocarbons will be even more technologically challenging to extract requiring even more technically advanced professionals to be able to find and produce them economically. This may require more advanced degrees and more interdisciplinary understanding than ever before.

Question: The oil and gas industry job market has a well-documented history of uncertainty and volatility. What advice can you give students/YPs considering a career in the oil and gas industry?

DC: Despite our mature industry’s history, petroleum continues to be our most efficient source of energy. Engineering ingenuity has most recently contributed to a significant increase in oil production in the United States. With this production increase, the price of raw materials for refineries and chemical plants has been reduced significantly, making them very competitive in the world market. Engineers and scientists will continue to be needed in this industry to further improve efficiencies and competitiveness.

CR: Oil and gas employment fluctuates based on supply and demand. It’s extremely important to stay abreast of technology and acquire new skills throughout one’s career to remain relevant and in demand. Options will always be open for those who pursue lifelong learning and earn credentials in our or any industry. SPE is a great resource for doing so.

Question: Do you have any further advice for young professionals?

DC: Take advantage of opportunities to find your passion—how you want to apply the knowledge and skills you develop with your education.

CR: Be proud of working in our industry. We enable the world’s economic growth. We improve the quality of people’s lives worldwide. We develop and use some of the world’s most advanced technology. And we employ some of the greatest talent on the planet.


Cynthia (Cindy) Reece, PE, recently retired after 35 years with ExxonMobil where she was instrumental in promoting digital oilfield capabilities. She held a variety of assignments in both production and development as well as in engineering, operations, and information technology—most recently as upstream technical computing manager, responsible for the company’s Upstream Technical Computing System and technical support of around 4,000 engineers and geoscientists worldwide. With degrees in both petroleum engineering and business, she is a licensed professional engineer in Texas. Reece served in leadership positions in SPE both at international and at Section levels, as well as in industry and the public sector, currently serving on SPE’s Board as technical director, management and information. Past chair of Energistics’ board, she is currently a trustee at Marietta College.
​David Ching is the business manager for the Phillips 66 Los Angeles Refinery. He has 35 years of refining experience in both technical and leadership roles. He began his oil industry career in 1979 with Mobil Oil. He held various engineering, operations, planning, and managerial positions at Mobil’s Torrance, California, and Ferndale, Washington, refineries. In 1989, he joined Union Oil of California at the Los Angeles Refinery. At the Los Angeles Refinery and under several ownership changes, he held additional engineering, operations, strategic planning, environmental, large project design and construction, and management positions. Ching earned a BS degree in chemical engineering at the University of Southern California and an MBA from California State University, Dominguez Hills.