Tapping Into an Undeveloped Resource

Student organizations are certainly nothing new, and any ex-student will remember the vibrant social life that university clubs provide and perhaps recall jumping in on one of many rallies and protests in the 1960s and 70s staged by guilds and university students. Recently, however, student organizations, particularly in engineering, have moved away from politics and taken on a new role providing professional career development opportunities in response to a rising demand from employers for graduates who can demonstrate teamwork, leadership, and other “soft” skills.

The U. of Western Australia (UWA) hosts a number of student engineer organizations. SPE has its own Perth Student Chapter for the growing number of oil and gas students at UWA and Curtin; Engineers Australia’s Young Engineers has a UWA branch as well as at Curtin, Murdoch, and Edith Cowan; and, of course, there is the faculty organization, the University Engineers Club (UEC).

Pub crawls and the Annual Ball (2005 hosted the 87th) are still sell-out events for the UEC, but running close alongside are the Graduate Networking Dinner in April and the Vac Work Expo held in August. The latter has been held annually since 1999.

This year’s Graduate Networking Dinner at Novotel drew a record turnout of nearly 200, including representatives from 23 companies. Mingling over predinner drinks was followed by a three-course meal with groups moving from table to table for every course. For companies, this was a great opportunity to plug themselves to the students and size up possible graduates, while the students were eager to find out who they really want to work for and perhaps even get a foot in the door. By dessert, the noise of chatter in the ballroom confirmed the evening’s success, and for some, the night was only just beginning, with many company representatives and students staying for drinks downstairs at Fenians.

The UWA Young Engineers also hosted a Sundowner and Networking Workshop in May attended by more than 150, including students and representatives from 15 companies. Ron Gibson gave a motivating presentation and tips for all to expand career horizons.

Events such as these are growing in popularity and are of great benefit to the students and employers alike. But those who gain the most are the students on the committees and teams like Motorsport and the Renewable Engineer Vehicle project. Apart from getting their names and faces known in the industry, the students learn skills—ability to manage, work with others, get things done, lead, communicate, and use initiative—that are valuable to any company. Much of this experience would normally be achieved only in the workplace several years after graduation. The confidence and sense of achievement that comes with the accomplishment of pulling off a successful event leads to a can-do attitude and the motivation to tackle practical problems.

So what does this mean for the oil and gas industry? A recent SPE article was titled “Skills Shortage: Action Is Needed, Not Words,” revealing that for some companies, this problem has become bad enough that they even experienced delays in projects. The industry needs to attract and retain the best new graduates to maintain a competitive edge and pioneer new technologies in a continually challenging environment.

The skills shortage problem is widespread, but the oil and gas industry has an advantage over other industries. Behind the scenes of organizing student events, oil and gas companies remain the most sought-after employers. They are consistently the most requested attendees to functions, the most popular choices for table allocations at the Graduate Networking Dinner, and the most crowded stands at Career Expos. SPE events attract a large turnout from all disciplines, reflecting students’ desire to pursue careers in oil and gas.

Despite this, companies in the oil and gas industry face tough competition with other industries and among themselves for graduates. Student feedback shows that companies that capture the most exposure among students are more popular and more highly regarded as prospective employers. Even the largest multinational may be attractive as an employer, but it may not be until there is a prompt, such as speaking with someone from the company, that a student will add it to his/her “to-apply” list.

Attendance at university events allows employers to meet some of the top students and gain valuable exposure. Companies also can access the most highly motivated students who organize these events—those who have developed the soft skills sought after in the workplace.

For the companies, these events are also incredible value for the money. The Sundowner and Networking Workshop were free for both students and companies, and the Vac Work Expo and Graduate Networking Dinner were a bargain. Sundowner sponsore Ambit Recruitment, an otherwise little-known company to students, secured fantastic promotion. A 20-minute presentation at the Graduate Networking Dinner by title sponsor Monadelphous raised significant awareness about the career opportunities on offer. Many companies have recognized the value that university level exposure can provide. Not only did Graduate Networking Dinner student tickets sell out early, but the RSVP date for company attendance applications had to be closed early because of an overwhelming response.

Student organizations’ latest roles as providing career development opportunities has stemmed from the demand from companies for graduates with proven abilities beyond academic results, and the positive response from students is to the benefit of employers, who can recruit graduates of an increasingly higher caliber. Oil and gas companies may have an advantage but still face tough competition when it comes to attracting the best employees, and it is those that market face to face with students that access the first pick of the top talent. Student-run events are of mutual benefit to all, but for many companies, they remain an unexploited resource. In today’s  workforce, it is imperative for the oil and gas industry to attract and secure the most-talented graduates if it is to tackle the challenges that lie ahead.


David Watson from Woodside is popular at the recent Vac Work Expo. Companies attending these events have first pick of the top students.


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