Is the Big Crew Change Still a Challenge?

You’ve heard of it before: the “Big (bad) Crew Change.”

Something to fear and always lurking right around the corner. The demographic phenomenon the science community has worried about for decades. Will we have enough qualified people to fill the shoes of the large proportion of career experts getting ready to retire?

It was a huge deal in the ‘90s, but what about now? Is it still really an issue, or are we just beating a dead horse?

Long article short, experts say “yes” to the former.

The skill voids left in the midst of high expert turnover are still something to worry about, especially in an industry where short-cycle markets merge with long-cycle projects. However, it’s not all doom and gloom.

According to Diana Duran, geological adviser for the Permian Exploitation Group of Occidental Petroleum, companies seem to be very conscious of age and skills gaps and how they will affect their operations. As a result, they are proactively seeking to fill those gaps.

“For the last couple of years or so, (Occidental Petroleum) has made a significant effort to identify our gaps for the current job and skills that we may need as we cross on to other roles,” she said.

Image Caption

Michael Pyrcz

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You’ve heard of it before: the “Big (bad) Crew Change.”

Something to fear and always lurking right around the corner. The demographic phenomenon the science community has worried about for decades. Will we have enough qualified people to fill the shoes of the large proportion of career experts getting ready to retire?

It was a huge deal in the ‘90s, but what about now? Is it still really an issue, or are we just beating a dead horse?

Long article short, experts say “yes” to the former.

The skill voids left in the midst of high expert turnover are still something to worry about, especially in an industry where short-cycle markets merge with long-cycle projects. However, it’s not all doom and gloom.

According to Diana Duran, geological adviser for the Permian Exploitation Group of Occidental Petroleum, companies seem to be very conscious of age and skills gaps and how they will affect their operations. As a result, they are proactively seeking to fill those gaps.

“For the last couple of years or so, (Occidental Petroleum) has made a significant effort to identify our gaps for the current job and skills that we may need as we cross on to other roles,” she said.

Making Lemonade Out of Lemons

Those gaps present a challenge, but the upside is the unexpected growth opportunities this represents for the next generation of hungry, up-and-coming geoscience professionals.

“While in many cases there is still a paucity of mid-career experts, there is a large proportion of early-career individuals ascending to excellent levels of responsibility and leadership,” said Michael Pyrcz, associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s Hildebrand Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering.

Teaching from his own experience, Pyrcz is passionate about preparing the next generation to take advantage of their time with mentors in order to bring future success to themselves and their industry. For Pyrcz, starting his career was “an experience of great access to amazing experts and seasoned personalities early in my career, followed by exceptional growth opportunities as I rose to meet the challenge.”

And, of course, he wants the same for his students.

Pyrcz described his senior experts as the very definition of corporate memory, who generously shared their invaluable bank of knowledge and experience.

“They taught me many concepts that have shaped my career, such as ‘our work must have line of sight to value,’ ‘sometimes the simpler solution is better,’ ‘if it doesn’t get in the model, it doesn’t matter,’ and ‘find a way to maintain your health with work-life balance – this is an endurance race,’” reflected Pyrcz.

After attending a string of their retirements, he found himself consistently inspired by their parting words.

It is seasoned experts like them who are vital filling those skills gaps by passing on their knowledge to younger professionals.

“The workforce challenges originate generally from a temporal scale paradox, and I appreciate great leaders in our industry that seek to retain operational capability during the downturns,” he said.

How to Narrow the Gaps

However, Pyrcz and Duran both agree that there are critical actions that must be taken to further minimize this problem, including:

  • Identify lacking proficiencies early and assign on-the-job training through fellow subject matter experts.
  • Take other environmental factors into consideration that could contribute to worsening gaps
  • Entice young professionals to the field and support them through essential training.
  • Retain existing talent.

“Companies need to look at their portfolio of people very closely and analyze the skills that they are missing … Then, assign champions to fulfill those portions through on-the job-training and mentoring from advanced geoscientists, and combine it with technology,” advised Duran.

While recent graduates might have the advantage when it comes to technology, it cannot be fully effective without practical knowledge only learned over years in the field, she explained.

“Now we can do things faster, but we need to carefully think about inputs and outputs, and not just accept what the computer tells us,” Duran added.

Pyrcz emphasized the need to support university programs that feed the industry.

“Cutting off new employee hiring and graduate student funding significantly damages our ability to produce the future generation of great talent essential to our industry’s success,” he warned.

As graduate programs that are committed to oil and gas research are somewhat disqualified from other funding sources available in other engineering and science disciplines, they are almost completely dependent on the support they receive from the industry. “The modern reality is that a single graduate student costs more than $50,000 per year in support. Industry needs these graduate students and industry’s support is essential,” said Pyrcz.

Additionally, retention is just as important, he said.

“Top talent has options, and I have seen great mid-career individuals leave the industry … While there are many great aspects of working in our industry, there are opportunities to improve,” said Pyrcz.

Diana Duran, geological adviser for the Permian Exploitation Group of Occidental Petroleum, and Michael Pyrcz, associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s Hildebrand Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering, will both be part of a panel session at the upcoming 2019 AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition in San Antonio on Tuesday, May 21, entitled, “The Big Crew Change: Passing the Baton and Challenges Awaiting Mid-Career Geoscientists.”

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