The Global Gas Industry: A Cleaner Energy Source Needs a Smart Workforce
The oil and gas industry has played a pivotal role in humankind’s progress. Today, as we usher in a new era of technological advancement, “flat-world,” and linked economies, it has never seemed more apparent how immensely dependent we are on oil and gas to meet our energy needs. Yet simultaneously we have a world that is getting more conscious about its environment and the future it leaves for generations to come. Fossil fuels like oil, coal, and gas have helped us meet our energy requirements for nearly 2 centuries, but people now want nations to focus on cleaner sources of energy. All these factors have significantly changed the dynamics of the energy sector.
Natural gas is becoming the preferred energy source for many applications due to reduced emissions, higher efficiency, affordability, abundant availability, and easy usage. Global demand for gas is predicted to rise 1.5% annually by 2030—double the growth rate of oil (Parshall 2011). In the wake of the recent Fukushima disaster in Japan and the shift in public opinion on nuclear energy, this number is likely to surge (e.g., Germany’s plan to completely phase out nuclear energy by 2022 [Dempsey and Ewing 2011]). The oil and gas industry is now increasingly reliant on unconventional resources.
While a lot of emphasis has been placed on investment in technology, focus on innovation, and lessening the burden of regulations and policies, we should ensure we continue to build on our most fundamental resource—the workforce.
According to the latest Schlumberger Business Consulting (SBC) HR Benchmark survey (2011), the following are two of the four factors that will immensely impact the industry workforce:
- The “Big Crew Change”: This is already having a profound impact on the industry. The SBC survey found that approximately 25% of the experienced workforce (petroleum engineers and geoscientists) are above the age of 50 and most of them will probably retire within the next 3 to 5 years. This translates to an exodus from the industry by 2014 of around 22,000 experienced workers. The survey also highlighted that graduate schools will be able to replace only about 17,000 professionals in the corresponding timeframe. This will leave a technical talent deficit of a whopping 5,000 people.
- Shift to More Unconventional Oil and Gas Resources: Unconventional gas resources (e.g., shale gas, tight gas) represent more challenges compared to those for accessing conventional resources. State-of-the-art techniques are needed to extract the gas in the most efficient and cost-effective manner. Hence it is important to understand that we need a different skill set from what we have focused on historically.
A Four-Step Approach to Youth Engagement
With a dearth of both experienced and skilled professionals, the global gas industry needs to engage young people in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) giving them early exposure in these subjects that excites them to later seek STEM educational qualifications.
With so many avenues opening up for youth with STEM qualifications, there needs to be a structured approach to tap into their talent. A four-step approach illustrated (Fig. 1) and described next would encourage them to consider being a part of the gas industry.
Step I: Create Awareness
The oil and gas industry is facing poor public perception due to geopolitical conflict and environmental issues. The public’s negative perception only worsened after the Macondo blowout in the Gulf of Mexico that claimed 11 lives and caused untold environmental damage. The oil and gas industry is considered by many to be irresponsible and unsafe for people and the environment. This does not make the industry a preferred choice for many STEM students.
There is a need to create awareness about the industry and its paramount role in contributing to developmental progress and impact in everyday life. Social media could be an important enabler to drive this message. There is also a need to create interactive channels with which the youth of today can relate. The primary role would be to acquaint them with the different forms of gas, the complexity involved in exploration and production, the scale of operations, the challenges to be confronted, conformity to safety standards, and above all the advantage of being a cleaner source of energy. For example, SPE has in place an active and successful Energy4me program that aims to excite youngsters about science and energy. Such initiatives at the university level would help students understand the industry on a serious scientific and economic level.
Step II: Attract
The gas industry offers a unique set of benefits that is enriching on all fronts compared to other industries. By 2030, natural gas will overtake coal as the world’s principal fuel for generating electrical power (BP 2011). The industry could draw a parallel with the information technology boom in early 2000, that attracted a pool of STEM graduates who were selected based on capability and later trained to suit job requisites.
This methodology could be replicated to attract STEM graduates to the gas industry—coupled with a strong message about tremendous lateral and vertical growth potential, international exposure, lucrative remuneration, and long-term sustainability of the sector. The rise of unconventional gas has given rise to unique challenges and this will be an added advantage to attract bright and talented youth who are always looking for such platforms on which to exercise their creativity and innovation.
Step III: Assist
The scale and complexity of the gas industry can be intimidating for youth or newcomers. Hence they need assistance from the industry and its veterans to make their transition into the industry seamless. While there have already been steps taken in the right direction, there is still room for more to be done. It is important to continue outreaches like professional societies’ and universities’ regional and international student paper contests, educational seminars, scholarships, and other measures to engage youth.
Yet at the same time there is a need to keep students abreast of the specifics of the gas industry and new and sophisticated technologies, along with their applications. This could be done by creating universally recognized and certified online/classroom training modules that have various levels. Collaboration for such specific area training could be between universities and companies or volunteer-driven industry-recognized professional organizations such as SPE. Certifications would serve as an additional incentive for interested students. It is important that all these efforts are coordinated via a common channel to avoid knowledge loss and duplication of effort.
Step IV: Sustain
The outcome of this process could be technically skilled professionals who would serve as ambassadors of the industry and spread their knowledge as well as experience. There need to be intervention points from the industry as well as academia to adapt as necessary. Initiatives like the World Gas Conference can be replicated across the world and more industry-recognized initiatives could be introduced, which could also serve as launch pads for deserving individuals. This will ensure continuity and sustainability of the program.
As we move with the times, the gas industry readies itself to be a more integral part of our lives. As we envisage a cleaner planet and move toward renewable energy sources, gas will serve as an important intermediate step. The gas industry promises a cleaner environment and a better future, and we need to fulfill the promise by investing in technology and innovation, and finally use the creativity of a smart workforce to integrate both.
As a very experienced workforce is in the process of retiring, the gas industry will be hugely dependent on youth. The industry needs to step up its current efforts to generate interest and attract and retain talent. The proposed plan would help achieve the needed impetus to encourage youth to choose to dedicate to a career in the gas industry. This methodical and structured approach will go a long way in ensuring a stable and sustainable gas industry. TWA
BP, 2011. BP Energy Outlook 2030.
Dempsey, J. and Ewing, J. 2011. Germany, in Reversal, Will Close Nuclear Plants by 2022. The New
York Times 30 May.
Parshall, J. 2011. Healthy Future Seen for Global Gas With Focus on Shale Gas and LNG. Article appeared in JPTonline.com, May.
Schlumberger Business Consulting, 2011. 2010 SBC Oil & Gas HR Benchmark (www.sbc.slb.com/SBCInstitute).
Abhijeet Kulkarni is a reservoir engineer at Dansk Shell, Copenhagen, Denmark. During his 7-year career with Shell, he has held different positions in drilling, CO2 enhanced-oil-recovery field-development planning, and reservoir management. Kulkarni was chair of the SPE Young Professional Coordinating Committee during 2011–12. He served as an editor for TWA’s Technical Leaders section between 2009 and 2012 and received an SPE International Young Member Outstanding Service Award in 2012. Kulkarni earned a bachelor of chemical engineering degree from the Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai, and an MS degree in petroleum engineering from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.