The Future of Young Professionals and Students in the Oil and Gas Industry: A Conversation With Professor Cor van Kruijsdijk

In this issue, we would like to dig deeper into the role of young professionals and students in the future of our industry. SPE membership demographics (Fig. 1) should raise awareness of the projected future shortage of skilled professionals. This figure is indicative of the total population in the oil and gas industry. Similar trends in age distribution have been observed for geoscientists (AAPG) and seismologists (SEG) and can be seen in Fig. 2. Considering the future worldwide demand for hydrocarbons (Fig. 3), this seems to be an incredible scenario. Nevertheless, an enormous amount of pressure has been put on a dwindling feedstock of young professionals to shape and manage future sustainable development. The need for a renewed fresh infusion into the work force seems evident. The events organized by Mining U. of Leoben are showcased as examples of interaction between students and young professionals.

A plot of the number of employees working in the oil industry in the U.S. from 1980 until 2000 (Fig. 4) clearly shows the reductions of the work force that are likely related to volatile oil prices, mergers, and advances in technology. The wild variations in staffing requirements because of the boom and bust cycles of the past 2 decades have reduced the attractiveness of the industry to students and graduates. There is a perceived job-security gap between this industry and other high-tech industries competing for the same talent pool.

In January, Professor Cor van Kruijsdijk of Delft U. of Technology shared his views on the causes of the demographic trends. He gave recommendations on how young professionals and today’s students should prepare for their future role in the E&P industry.

Van Kruijsdijk studied applied physics at Eindhoven U. of Technology with a specialization in atomic physics. After leaving academia in 1985, he joined Shell Research and spent the next 4 years working in recovery processes. During this time, his interests were in well testing, the use of horizontal wells, and flow aspects of natural and hydraulic fractures. Subsequently, he was transferred to Shell’s E&P laboratory in Calgary, where he worked for nearly 5 years. In Canada, his research interests broadened to gas condensates and more fundamental flow through porous media. In addition, he spent half his time as resevoir engineering adviser in various field development prjects throughout Shell Canada.

In November 1993, van Kruijsdijk was appointed prfessor of reservoir engineering at Delft U. of Technology. At Delft, he has held the positions of department head and dean. He also has been Chairman of the “Diversity Platform,” a member  of the Advisory Board for Research and Technology, and a member of the Management Development feedback group. He also is Scientific Director of the Earth Research Center Delft and part of the Management  Team  of  the  new  Integrated System Approach to Petroleum Production, a joint research  program   between   industry,   applied research institutes, and several universities.

On a scientific level, his interest in flow through porous media has continued to increase in both breadth and depth. Current research includes 4D seismic, gas/gas injection, upscaling, and smart wells. He is an active member of SPE and has been involved in editing and the organization of forums, conferences, and workshops.

 

Skewed Demographics

Van Kruijsdijk has witnessed a similar trend at Delft U. as well. From the 1990s onward, the number of new petroleum engineering students has dropped dramatically, and is still decreasing. This year, petroleum engineering at Delft counts 35 new students. In the early 1990s, the number was three times greater.

Van Kruijsdijk gives three reasons for this trend. Because of oil price fluctuations, the E&P industry has proved itself not to be a loyal employer. For instance, people have been laid off in large numbers, and years later, many of the same people were hired back again. Students have become reluctant to solicit the industries’ unstable work environment. In combination with other good career opportunities, this has resulted in a reduced interest in the E&P industry. The E&P industry has the image of being a sunset, dirty, low-tech industry.

But this image is inaccurate. It is well known that there are enough hydrocarbon resources to supply worldwide demand for the next 50 years. With respect to the industry being “dirty,” van Kruijsdijk stresses that there are not that many industries in the world that could mirror the tremendous health, safety, and environmental progress that the E&P industry has achieved over the last 20 years. When it comes to cleaning up the environment, no other industry is better positioned and taking more significant actions in the area of CO2 sequestration and storage than the petroleum industry. “And the ‘low tech’? That’s rubbish! All aspects of mathematics and physics are incorporated in our industry,” he says. There is no aspect of physics that is not included. Apart from the defense industry, no other industry uses as much supercomputing power as E&P. One reason this message is not properly communicated to the public is that some of the older people in the petroleum industry have seen a different type of E&P industry, he says. They have not been able to follow the changes our industry has gone through. They are still communicating the old image. High school students are influenced by this. And there is also an element of nostalgia. Many of the older people in E&P are still longing for the “good old days” and have not been motivated to actively communicate the changes externally, he says.

Young professionals should play a key role in communicating a better image, and the target group should be the young generation, he adds. They should communicate a realistic industry image to both high school and university students, which could provoke a culture change both externally and internally. “The key issue is our image, and your key mission should be to create a better one,” he says. Once a better image is communicated, other “hot” issues such as world education, poverty, and the environment could also be addressed. Young professionals should not hesitate to put geopolitics high on the agenda. The leadership of BP and Shell offer good examples of how to approach the world and the public in a different way, he adds.

The Future

Figs. 1 through 4 show the pressure facing the E&P industry, and it will only increase in the future. But this also offers tremendous opportunities. “Young professionals are in the position to take over in about 10 years. There is no better time to start a career in the E&P industry than right now,” van Kruijsdijk says. “In combination with the upcoming paradigm change, you will be able to give shape to a new kind of E&P industry.”

In the future, more emphasis will be put on data and information management and related decision making. This means that work processes will evolve. “The young professional will operate in a measurement and control environment, more so than today,” he says. Workflow in E&P has been strongly discipline-based. In the future, the integration of disciplines and related decision making will be recorded in database information systems. These systems will be updated with real-time data—for instance, with the daily rate of production wells. That will allow a quicker response each time new data come in and anticipation of events to optimize your field-management strategy.

Van Kruijsdijk explained that these changes are not correlated to the demographics or the reduced workforce. Technology has improved, offering better control through increased computing power, smart wells, 4D seismic, and quantitative geology. The challenge lies in how to make optimized use of these new opportunities. “The young professionals are very fortunate that the industry is on the brink of the paradigm change. Many senior people will not be able to cope with it, but the young can build on it,” he says.

He advises young professionals to keep themselves well informed about smart fields/e-fields and to attend courses on measurement and control techniques. This will help them better adjust to upcoming changes. Measurement and control is already in the curriculum of today’s students.

For the mid-career employee, a new master’s degree in petroleum business engineering has been introduced at Delft TopTech. In this course, more emphasis is put on the scope rather than on the basis of disciplines. The participants will learn how to distinguish what is important in what context.

Putting emphasis on scope rather than on the basis does not mean that basic disciplines, such as petrophysics, should be neglected. Disciplines are the pillars of our industry. At this level in an engineer’s career, a focus on integration and scope are welcome additions to conventional discipline-focused curriculum.

Joint Activities

Delft U. of Technology has had little contact with young professionals other than at monthly meetings of the SPE Netherlands Section in Den Haag. Van Kruijsdijk says he would like young people to consider participating in and contributing more to the university program. Young professionals have a strong opinion and are quick of mind. “They know what is relevant for our students,” he says. He suggests that alumni offer input to the curriculum, similar to what is done at the U. of Texas at Austin. He also strongly supports the idea of young professionals giving lectures to students. Additionally, he would like to increase the visibility of young people in the industry and see them become more active and visible in SPE. It would be good to have at least one or two young professionals on every SPE committee, he says.