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Plenary session: Bridging the generation gap with young professionals

Posted on 04 February 2010

As the “big crew change” continues to unfold, it’s inevitable that today’s leaders will have to pass the baton to the next generation . But are industry veterans doing enough to pass on their wisdom to young professionals? What are the new generation’s expectations for this industry and are they getting the coaching and support they need?

The Wednesday plenary session at the 2010 IADC/SPE Drilling Conference in New Orleans examined this topic with four panelists – including two 26-year-old engineers providing a next-generation perspective that is not frequently heard at industry events.

But before the industry can even begin to talk about how to develop and support young professionals, we have to understand who they really are, said panelist Pat Neal, National Oilwell Varco vice president organizational development. “To truly understand this generation, we need to take a look at what world they were born into.”

To do that, we must look at some of the cultural and technological milestones that occurred during their youth: the introduction of the video game, the personal computer, the Walkman, Microsoft and the mobile phone. “This generation was the first to be born into a fully digital age,” Ms Neal pointed out.

Demographically, this is an extremely ethnically diverse generation. “They’re also the most politically and socially progressive and least religiously observant,” she said. “They have exceptionally high expectations, and they have a true sense of self-worth. This is causing them to put a high demand on our organizations as they come into the work place” because they want to know how they fit in and they want to make meaningful contributions.

Communication styles are also very different compared with the previous generation, a potential barrier in the passing down of existing knowledge and wisdom. “Face-to-face meetings are not something they’re accustomed to. Texting is something that’s much more their modus operandi,” Ms Neal remarked.

The previous generation also shouldn’t underestimate the high energy levels of young people – they “don’t like boredom and will not tolerate sitting around waiting for something to happen for very long,” she said. Even in learning, they expect a higher level of engagement and interaction – “edutainment.”

She added, “This is causing us to rethink how we do learning. Death by PowerPoint is a thing of the past.”

Dharmesh Prasas, Schlumberger marketing strategist, reservoir production, also encouraged the industry to give young professionals the support they need, especially via coaching. “The time that a coach spends with a new trainee is very important and, therefore, the number of trainees per coach should not be more than two at most,” he said.

The downturn has impacted industry recruitment rates, and forecasts show that there could be a significant shortfall of trained personnel, by 8,000 to 10,000 people, in just a few years. This means not only that young professionals will be forced into making autonomous decisions much quicker than expected, but the experienced people may not be able to leave the industry as they planned. “Their retirement may be delayed,” Mr Prasas said.

He urged the industry to plan for personnel needs much more aggressively than now, “especially because we know the long-term trends of the industry are positive.”

Universities and the industry will each have roles to play. He explained: “Universities have to streamline their courses such that there’s a constant flow of people coming into the industry. Once they’re in the industry, then the onus is on the oil companies and service companies to get them up to speed very quickly.”

New perspective

For the two young professionals who sat on the panel and gave voice to their group, one common theme emerged in their comments: Young people need more chances to get out of the office and into the field.

“I think we’re a bit worried that we’re not getting the full field experience,” said Mike Roth Jr, who’s working in production operations for EnCana Oil & Gas in Dallas.

“We know how to navigate our way through software. … If we go and spend three or four years out in the field, I don’t think those skill sets are going to escape us. … We’re going to come back to the office, and we’re going to be a lot more well-rounded.” That time in the field would allow them to interact with experienced professionals – those who have been around and know what it takes to get the work done, Mr Roth said. “If we can collaborate, I think we’re going to see an increase in productivity.”

Panelist Danny Rehg of Anadarko Petroleum said he’s not been through a formally structured training program since joining Anadarko’s drilling and completion group nearly three years ago – which turns out wasn’t a bad thing.

“Interestingly enough, the lack of structure actually forced me into a situation where it was sink or swim,” he said. “(There were) lots of responsibilities, lots of different ideas. And new information that I didn’t learn in school was thrown at me in an extremely rapid pace. One of the most valuable things about that is I got to spend a lot of time out on the rigs with the different company men. … The people out there are extremely diverse. Some are really, really good to work with … and some are extremely difficult to work with. But the value there is you learn to work with people.”

“As we try to bridge this gap between experienced professionals and young people, we’ve got to learn to communicate,” Mr Rehg continued.

Field time is also critical so that the next generation can develop a deeper understanding of the operations side of the business. “Because, ultimately, when the buck gets passed to the younger generation, I think there’s going to be a gap there,” he commented. “I don’t think we’re doing a good-enough job at training our young people to spend enough time in the field.”

Finally, he added that he believes motivation for success doesn’t necessarily mean setting milestones such as “I want to be a manger” or “I want to be a vice president.” “You have to hone the skills that it takes to succeed in any role, no matter where that ends up being. It’s too difficult to tell where you’ll be in 10, 15 years.”

2 Comments For This Post

  1. Mark Thompson Says:

    As a 30+ year professional in the industry, I find that we are not necessarily getting information across to our young engineers. We aren’t speaking the same language. Either we (in the field) are not being as plain and concise as possibile or the engineers (who don’t have the field experience) are not completely understanding the data we are relaying to them. Due to their lack of experience and our lack of literary or lingustic expertise, the things that we say are not always the things that they hear. We have to find a way to communicate.

  2. Mike Williams Says:

    I am just completing my MSc Petroleum Engineering degree and I along with my course mates, are finding it extremely hard to find that ‘break’. There is more and more information starting to appear in print or on the internet about the widening gap and how everyone should be trying to meet the shortfall. However, it is hard to see any evidence of this from the graduate end.

    Some people may say that we a re not trying hard enough, however, I am heavily involved with organisations such as the SPE and IChemE to try and find those contacts. Yet we all seem to be hitting our heads against a brick wall.

    I have only one years experience in the oil and gas industry and openings are slim to say the least. I hope that in the near future, the senior engineers/managers will take a more proactive role in hiring these graduates.

    This article in itself is helping and I hope that the right people will here this plea, not just from a post graduate student, but from the larger student body. We are not hard to find, we are in the universities that man people walk past on a daily basis.

    Let’s all keep our fingers crossed that the ‘big crew change’ is taken seriously and does not affect performance and of course safety!

    Thank you for listening!

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