If I could give only one piece of advice to young professionals who are, or will be, employed by companies with international operations, it would be to take advantage of any opportunities that you are offered to live and work in locations outside your home country.
Experiencing life outside your home country provides invaluable experience in dealing with different cultures, broadens your work and personal perspectives, and increases your technical expertise by offering new and very different operating and engineering challenges. I believe that employees who possess international experience have a significant competitive advantage over their peers who lack it. This competitive advantage will only increase in the future as the global demand for hydrocarbons swells and companies continue to expand their operations to new locations around the world.
I would like to share with you some of my personal experiences and insights gathered during my 25-year career with Chevron. Of those 25 years, 15 have been spent outside my home country. Each of the five international locations where I have lived and worked has provided me with unique work and cultural experiences, contributed to my knowledge of the industry, and broadened my career opportunities.
The first international position offered to me was as a drilling engineer located in Zaire (Democratic Republic of the Congo), Africa. I quickly accepted the job and then went home and searched a map to figure out where my new home was located. The assignment provided me the opportunity to help plan and supervise the drilling of one of Chevron’s first offshore horizontal wells. The assignment certainly strengthened my technical expertise. But of equal importance was the experience I gained supervising employees who had completely different perspectives on work and life from mine, forcing me to adjust my leadership style to effectively meet their expectations while achieving the company’s objectives.
My next international assignment took me to Aberdeen, where I witnessed firsthand the awesome power of a North Sea storm. There were days offshore when the seas and the winds were more severe than those of a hurricane rampaging through the Gulf of Mexico. I was awestruck at the engineering expertise that goes into the design and construction of the offshore structures of the North Sea, making them capable of enduring nearly any weather condition. I learned that ours is an amazing industry, able to meet any challenge to recover hydrocarbons. This remarkable adaptability of our industry has made available vast resources that were previously thought unrecoverable.
The winds of the North Sea eventually carried my family and me westward to Maracaibo, Venezuela, for our third international posting. As a member of a project team comprising representatives from one national and three international oil companies (IOCs), the assignment gave me firsthand experience in dealing with the often competing objectives and priorities of various stakeholders. Naturally, each company brought to the project team its distinctive corporate culture and institutional experience, which had a twofold effect: It enriched the project planning by incorporating a diversity of views, but it also caused confusion for the team when the various company objectives clashed. I quickly learned the importance of aligning project stakeholders and ensuring they share a common understanding and goal.
Our next assignment took us across the Pacific to Sumatra, Indonesia, where I was assigned to lead an asset team. On my arrival, I observed two things: a young and enthusiastic group of engineers and earth scientists with limited oilfield experience, and a business model that kept their experience limited by not giving them direct responsibility over the fields they worked. Drawing on my earlier experiences in dealing with asset teams, I immediately set about to change the expectations for these young professionals. I gave them full responsibility for their assigned fields, set expectations for them to meet production objectives, and tasked them with identifying workover and drilling prospects. Initially, they were concerned they did not have the experience to handle the added responsibility. But in short order, they were meeting and exceeding my expectations and were handling all the responsibilities of operating their fields. But perhaps most satisfying of all was watching these young professionals grow in their skills and confidence. Some of them developed so quickly that they, in turn, were selected for their own international assignments.
The deserts of Kuwait, my next and current assignment, are a far cry from the lush jungles of Indonesia. During my time here, I have had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of the team that successfully negotiated the extension and amendment of Chevron’s agreement with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for operating the Kingdom’s 50% undivided interest in the onshore Partitioned Neutral Zone between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. I saw firsthand how Chevron coordinates economic evaluation with negotiating strategy for a major strategic decision. I also witnessed the remarkable ability of a national oil company (NOC), in this case Saudi Aramco, to organize vast expertise to review the technical issues related to a long-term agreement.
While I hope that I’ve made it clear that an international assignment can significantly broaden an employee’s professional knowledge, it is also worth mentioning how valuable the experience is for families as well. Living in a foreign country provides unique opportunities for the entire family. Families are able to travel to places that many people only read about. Children attend international schools with students from a variety of countries and learn firsthand the differences and similarities between cultures and how to be successful when dealing with intercultural situations. Friendships made overseas tend to be lifelong, owing to the special bond formed from experiencing together the challenges and rewards of an overseas assignment.
As a final note, it is important to recognize that as access to petroleum resources becomes even more limited in the United States and many other countries, there will be an increasing need for energy companies to look outside their current portfolio to procure reserves. At the same time, in order to meet growing world energy demands, NOCs are having to turn to IOCs to take advantage of their institutional knowledge and experience in developing more technically challenging fields and implementing enhanced recovery methods.
With these two dynamics in play, it is very likely that there will be increasing opportunities for international assignments in the future. My advice is to seriously consider taking advantage of any such career prospects that come your way. Chances are that once you get your first taste of life overseas, you will be hooked on the experience and want to remain “globally mobile” throughout your career, just as thousands of others in the industry have done.
Jeff Ewing has been senior vice president, Operations, for Saudi Arabian Chevron in the onshore Partitioned Neutral Zone since December 1, 2008. He joined Chevron in 1985, and his career has consisted of numerous domestic and international positions in engineering, planning, operations, and management in Louisiana, Zaire, Scotland, Venezuela, Indonesia, and Kuwait. Ewing earned a BS degree in petroleum engineering from Texas A&M University.