Transitioning Into the ‘Gig’ Economy

One of the issues we’re spending a lot of time thinking about is the future of the petroleum geoscience workforce. It’s a topic we’ve covered extensively in the EXPLORER and one that I’ve written about repeatedly in this column.

A broad trend observed in the U.S. economy is a move toward “on demand” labor. Also known as the “gig” economy, there is a push to hiring contract or self-employed workers to fill specific job tasks. Your Uber driver is a good example, as is the virtual personal assistant that helps you keep on top of your calendar. They provide a service and are paid for that work, but then move on to the next customer.

And according Anadarko’s Chief Technology Officer Sanjay Paranji, that is the path that the E&P company of the future is on, too. As the keynote luncheon speaker at last month’s Energy in Data Conference, a joint event presented by AAPG, the Society of Exploration Geophysicists and the Society of Petroleum Engineers, Paranji noted that one outcome of the digital transformation currently under way in the oil and natural gas business is a wholescale rethinking of workflows and how companies will conduct business – from exploration to production to delivery.

It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard this sentiment expressed by large companies. In the white paper issued following AAPG’s Energy Transitions Forum held last year in Amsterdam, there was recognition that, just as global energy markets are evolving, so too is the traditional employment model in E&P. Increasingly, these companies are looking for expertise on demand.

Generalists Versus Specialists

The technology-enabled shifts are happening at an interesting time for our industry. The crew change has occurred and the next generation has taken over most of the technical roles in exploration and production. A lot of subject matter experts have either left the industry or moved into a consulting role – they’ve entered the gig economy.

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One of the issues we’re spending a lot of time thinking about is the future of the petroleum geoscience workforce. It’s a topic we’ve covered extensively in the EXPLORER and one that I’ve written about repeatedly in this column.

A broad trend observed in the U.S. economy is a move toward “on demand” labor. Also known as the “gig” economy, there is a push to hiring contract or self-employed workers to fill specific job tasks. Your Uber driver is a good example, as is the virtual personal assistant that helps you keep on top of your calendar. They provide a service and are paid for that work, but then move on to the next customer.

And according Anadarko’s Chief Technology Officer Sanjay Paranji, that is the path that the E&P company of the future is on, too. As the keynote luncheon speaker at last month’s Energy in Data Conference, a joint event presented by AAPG, the Society of Exploration Geophysicists and the Society of Petroleum Engineers, Paranji noted that one outcome of the digital transformation currently under way in the oil and natural gas business is a wholescale rethinking of workflows and how companies will conduct business – from exploration to production to delivery.

It wasn’t the first time I’ve heard this sentiment expressed by large companies. In the white paper issued following AAPG’s Energy Transitions Forum held last year in Amsterdam, there was recognition that, just as global energy markets are evolving, so too is the traditional employment model in E&P. Increasingly, these companies are looking for expertise on demand.

Generalists Versus Specialists

The technology-enabled shifts are happening at an interesting time for our industry. The crew change has occurred and the next generation has taken over most of the technical roles in exploration and production. A lot of subject matter experts have either left the industry or moved into a consulting role – they’ve entered the gig economy.

The assumption in many C-suites is that if a company has a specific need, they can find someone to fill it – and odds are good that they can.

This isn’t a new trend, and one already familiar to small and medium-sized independent producers where groups of experts frequently work together on a specific E&P project. But what’s changed today, and what Paranji is suggesting will accelerate, is a willingness and desire to see just how far large E&P companies can push this model. And, he noted, technology will enable them to go much farther than in years past.

Shifts like this are permeating all sectors of industry. In an article in the July 2019 issue of The Atlantic, Jerry Useem wrote that “these days, it seems, just about all organizations are asking their employees to do more with less.” The title of the article is, “At Work, Expertise is Falling Out of Favor.”

Useem wrote about the U.S. Navy’s shift toward recruiting and training generalists for its Littoral Combat Ships. It “was the first class of Navy ship that, because of technological change and the high cost of personnel, turned away from specialists in favor of ‘hybrid sailors’ who have the ability to acquire skills rapidly,” he wrote.

Let’s face it: if you’re an employer, you need someone who can help you solve problems – all kinds of problem – as they arise. Automating workflows, Useem explained, frees employees to do just that. But what emerges is a shift away from knowledge – specific knowledge is only valuable if it’s applicable to the problem at hand – and toward generalists who can step up, respond to the unexpected and solve the problem well enough.

“It would be supremely ironic,” Useem mused, “if the advance of the knowledge economy had the effect of devaluing knowledge.”

Controlling for Hyperbole

This is where I get hung up. Because for all the promise that automation and on-demand expertise offers, I keep asking myself: Can we really do exploration today without subject matter experts? What about field development and enhanced recovery methods? What about oil field safety?

How much of this can be automated? Just how far can we push this idea?

There’s a part of me that wants to dismiss out of hand the likelihood of petroleum geoscientists being pushed aside by automation and technology. Ours is a science that is observational, integrative and interpretative – those are skills that are learned. They are skills that are earned.

But there’s another part of me concerned that perhaps I sound like a buggy whip craftsman at the turn of the 20th century trying to reassure his colleagues as a new-fangled automobile rumbles by …

A degree of humility is in order.

We cannot dismiss the fact that transformation – true transformation – is not a set of incremental steps forward, but rather a wholesale rethinking of how to find oil and natural gas. We know that geology has played a vital role in finding oil and natural gas. What about now? Similarly, we must acknowledge that technology evangelists are some of the most optimistic people in the world. “As a rule of thumb,” Useem urged, “statements out of Silicon Valley should be deflated by half to control for hyperbole.”

Where does that leave us? As the oil and natural gas business continues to evolve we need to assess, consider and advocate for geoscience, for our place in E&P.

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