Teaching Geology Faces Challenge

Skills, Knowledge Needed for Future

The key challenge to maintaining a robust petroleum industry is ensuring an adequate supply of well-trained professionals now and in the future.

Education in petroleum disciplines is more critical than ever, as the industry work force is aging, and employee numbers are dwindling through attrition. This is compounded by a "productivity gap" of somewhere between eight to 10 years, from the time students take up studies to the time they accumulate enough knowledge and experience to be productive petroleum geoscientists or engineers.

With these sobering assertions as a background, the AAPG sponsored a workshop at the annual meeting in Houston titled "Summit on Teaching Petroleum Geology: Where Do We Go From Here?" About 40 participants from 20 universities representing eight different countries attended, plus recruiters and training-related managers from seven oil and service companies.

The summit's goal was to discuss what is needed to train the next generation of geologists for the petroleum industry.

Summit findings included:

Industry Demographics

Our industry is "graying", with few young people filling the ranks of those who are near retirement. Between 40 to 70 percent of the geoscientists in the industry will be eligible to retire within the next seven years

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The key challenge to maintaining a robust petroleum industry is ensuring an adequate supply of well-trained professionals now and in the future.

Education in petroleum disciplines is more critical than ever, as the industry work force is aging, and employee numbers are dwindling through attrition. This is compounded by a "productivity gap" of somewhere between eight to 10 years, from the time students take up studies to the time they accumulate enough knowledge and experience to be productive petroleum geoscientists or engineers.

With these sobering assertions as a background, the AAPG sponsored a workshop at the annual meeting in Houston titled "Summit on Teaching Petroleum Geology: Where Do We Go From Here?" About 40 participants from 20 universities representing eight different countries attended, plus recruiters and training-related managers from seven oil and service companies.

The summit's goal was to discuss what is needed to train the next generation of geologists for the petroleum industry.

Summit findings included:

Industry Demographics

Our industry is "graying", with few young people filling the ranks of those who are near retirement. Between 40 to 70 percent of the geoscientists in the industry will be eligible to retire within the next seven years

Issues at the Universities

➤ Attracting undergraduate geology students.

At the undergraduate level there is a significant problem of attracting geology majors. In the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom the lack of earth science programs in the kindergarten to high school level limits the number of students who want to major in geology.

➤ Negative perceptions of industry.

Students hesitate to enter a graduate program in petroleum geology because of the perceived lack of job security.

➤ Funding declines from governments.

Federal and provincial/state governments have decreased their support of higher education markedly in all countries surveyed. Most departments are surviving by outside grants and "contract research."

Industry Requirements

➤ Geological.

In most countries a master's degree with the thesis option is required as the entry ticket into the petroleum industry. The thesis is considered important training for independent work. The coursework component should include a strong background in basic geosciences, including some geophysics coursework.

Chris Heath's survey of U.S. and U.K. oil companies suggests that senior line managers view field mapping skills as not terribly important. Recruiters who were present at the summit, however, disagreed, unanimously wanting the new geological recruit to have had a strong field-oriented background.

This apparent dichotomy of responses was clarified during discussion periods: Oil companies rarely have need for geologists to go out and do field mapping, but these same companies want their employees to have a firm background in field work so as to understand scale, stratigraphy and structural relationships — all of which are best learned by looking at rocks in the field.

➤ Non-technical.

All companies wanted new geological recruits to be able to think — not just regurgitate by rote memory. All viewed the ability to collaborate with others (team work) as extremely important.

Presentation skills also are of critical importance; most companies require the interviewees to make technical presentations during the interview process.

➤ Desirable, but not necessarily required.

Geological and geophysical workstation skills on a UNIX platform are desirable. This does not mean that the companies want universities to train technicians to know all of the software functions. A strong candidate will not jeopardize employment chances by not having these skills.

➤ Internships.

The importance of participation in industry internship program cannot be understated. Every company wanted the recruit to have done an industry internship, preferably with their own company. For some companies industry internships are desired but not required, but for other companies an internship is a requirement for employment.

Where Do We Go From Here?

  • Universities should not train the student to be a technician. A greater emphasis needs to be given to presentation skills, exposure to numerous outcrop examples, and to teamwork.

    Basic geology courses are still a necessity for creating a functional geologist. Geology departments must continue to require all masters graduate students to work on a thesis.

  • p The requirement by many oil companies of an internship in the petroleum industry should be communicated to all universities. It would be a disservice to graduate students to prepare for a career in an oil company, and then find that they have a low chance of employment because they did not spend a summer with an oil company.

  • As traditional university funding sources dry up, most departments are faced with difficult strategic decisions: do they forgo the role of fundamental research in favor of the more lucrative contract research areas?

    Companies should consider increasing their funding of applied and fundamental petroleum research that involves both graduate and undergraduate students.

  • Companies need to have relatively steady recruiting and avoid the cyclic pattern that is now common. Most of the recruiting is occurring in a handful of schools. The industry needs to broaden the number of schools that they recruit from.

  • The student expo sponsored by AAPG needs to be expanded to be part of all Section meetings and a major part of the national and international AAPG meeting. Student and faculty involvement in the AAPG meeting needs to be encouraged.

  • Universities must accept that changes to traditional formats of degrees, courses, research and general ethos are required to survive. To replace professional staff in five years time, companies need to be currently investing in universities to safeguard earth science education.

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