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Irina Slav

Irina Slav

Irina is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry.

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Wanted: Oil Workers With More Tech, Less ‘Roughneck’

Oil and gas’s love affair with digital technology is about to get serious. With digital tech’s proven capacity to contribute to the industry’s number-one priority in the post-2014 era—cost control—it’s no wonder that oil and gas companies are fast becoming the biggest fans of all things digital. 

The change is already showing in job patterns and it could help oil and gas solve their talent shortage problem.

The problem is critical for the industry; in January this year, a survey from a recruitment firm in the UK found that many in the industry were concerned there wouldn’t be enough new oil and gas professionals to replace those that were retiring.

A few months later, EY also reported the results of a survey that suggested the crisis is imminent. The study cited figures from the Society of Petroleum Engineers, which showed that over half of its members were over 55 years old. Once they retire, there are few younger engineers to fill the gap.

Bad rep and danger

The problem is multi-faceted. Both surveys found that the oil and gas industry’s image in the minds of younger generations—millennials and digital natives—was simply too negative for them to consider a career in it. A solid majority in both demographics believed that oil and gas were problematic and even dangerous: as much as 70 percent of both millennials and digital natives shared that opinion.

There is also the issue of job security, which many respondents cited in the January survey.  Related: Is A New Price War Looming For OPEC?

After the 2014 crisis, with investment shrinkage and cost control came lower exploration budgets. This discouraged many students from going into petroleum engineering in the belief that there would not be enough demand for new petroleum engineers. And it’s not just engineers: the EY survey found that many millennials and digital natives find work in oil and gas too physically taxing to be appealing.

Enter digital technology, the response to all of these problems: the talent drain, the bad rep, and the lack of appeal.

Stopping the brain drain

This is already happening. 

In Texas, tech labs set up by oil and gas companies are popping up everywhere with a single aim: digitize the industry. Naturally, this digitization requires a new workforce with a different skill set from what the industry needed during the age of abundance also known as the 1970s.

The Houston Chronicle’s Sergio Chapa reviewed the latest data and tech developments in oil and gas recently with a focus on this new workforce, noting how young people with jobs such as scrum master, agile coach, data scientist, cloud architect, and even user experience designer were replacing the blue-collar oil and gas workers of the past. Related: Emissions Soar As Permian Flaring Frenzy Breaks New Records

This is not just a way to utilize more of the potential of data in the oilfield and in the office but also an ingenious way to make the industry more appealing to the younger generations that have a problem with it. “[…] New jobs titles are being invented faster than government officials can classify them,” Chapa writes, noting this as a reason why there are no reliable statistics yet about the number of tech professionals already working in oil and gas.

Reducing the heavy lifting

An important aspect of this digital transformation that is bringing more young people into oil and gas, is automation. Automation is increasingly looking like the industry’s key to a long-term future. Usually bundled together with artificial intelligence, automation cuts costs, improves health and safety, and boosts exploration and production results, all at the same time.

More than two-thirds of millennials find work in oil and gas to be physically difficult, the EY survey found. But a lot of these physically difficult and time-consuming activities can be automated and some are already being automated. Site inspections and surveys that would have in the past taken days can now take hours by deploying a drone. Well logging, the recording of information about the rock into which a well is being drilled, is already automated with the bulk of the work done by computers.

There seems to be a new race in oil and gas: a race for the most cutting-edge technology. Baker Hughes, for example, recently teamed up with Microsoft and a Silicon Valley startup to widen the use of artificial intelligence in the industry, the Houston Chronicle’s Chapa writes. Enbridge has set up a tech lab in Houston and is drawing young tech professionals to it. And these are not exceptions but part of a growing trend.

An Accenture study from earlier this year found that there are four tech areas that together can transform the oil and gas industry. Dubbed DARQ for distributed ledger technology, AI, extended reality, and quantum computing, these are already being experimented with in one form or another by 80 percent of upstream and 90 of downstream executives. 

With their potential to not just help improve performance but also tackle and potentially solve a problem as serious as the talent shortage facing the industry, chances are oil and gas will at some point turn into tech, oil and gas.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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