Considering climate change impact mitigation, the world’s need for raw materials, new ways of addressing energy needs and management of water resources — not to mention its own internal “crew change” — the geoscience community now faces a uniquely tumultuous time. How, in the coming decades, will the industry meet these often insurmountable, conflicting challenges? Is it even ready? Perhaps, most fundamentally and philosophically, what will the profession look like in the years to come as it tries to do all that?
“We need to make sure that we’re solution providers. Skillfulness and innovative thinking are going to be the winning traits,” said Christopher M. Keane, director of geoscience professional higher education at the American Geosciences Institute.
As important as the new technology will be, he elaborated, it will be equally imperative that the industry get right the transition between outgoing and incoming generations of geoscience professionals.
Referring to the crew change, he said it has to be more than simply a matter of the outgoing guys “with the gray in their hair” sharing “war stories” with those coming on board.
In the energy sector, widespread retirements of the baby boomers are already upon us, as are the effects and aftermath of COVID-19. The industry is already redefining itself.
The challenge will be to channel that redefinition to meet those future challenges.
“All of a sudden we were going from ‘it’s not always easy getting a job as a geoscientist’ to a yawning gap of need,” said Keane.
‘Deciphering’ the Geosciences
Keane was the featured speaker at a recent AGI webinar, “The Geoscience Workforce — Today and Future Trajectories,” sponsored by AAPG and the AAPG Foundation.
He asked the assembled participants a simple question: Where are we now?
“The majority of folks have terminal master’s or terminal bachelor’s degrees,” he said.
There are many, though, who have terminal degrees who are practicing in the industry, but they’re not geologists; still, they are a part of the family. They are the engineers, biologists, chemists and even financiers.
“And so many times these conversations are in rooms with a lot of folks with PhDs, but the reality is what we’re talking about our discipline, our profession, our community,” Keane explained.
The entire spectrum of the geosciences will need to be “deciphered” in a serious, patient manner, he said. Artificial intelligence will change the workforce dynamic, of course, but so too will better recruitment efforts and more sophisticated, specialized training in universities.
The goal for the industry, Keane believes, is to work better, which doesn’t always mean working smaller.
“The problem is that if you can’t meet all the demand, you literally forego activity,” he said.
And even if you have the workforce in place, there are situations in which that workforce isn’t doing the actual geoscience work, he noted.
For example, in studies conducted by both the mining and energy industries, approximately 80 percent of geoscientists’ time was spent basically wrangling data.
Paperwork — not “applying intellectual effort.”
IBM, seizing on that data, then introduced Watson, its question/answering computing system, into a handful of projects to see if it could improve efficiency.
Work that took more than a thousand man-hours to do, the computer did it in 14 minutes.
But that efficiency came at a price.
“Machine learning is really good at primarily identifying very predictable things, while flagging things that it has no clue on,” said Keane.
He said the goal is to get and hire geoscientists to do more of the work of science — and less repetitive, mindless work.
To put this another way, Keane talked about food preparation.
“So we can worry about not having to dice the vegetables and preparing the meal, but rather focusing more on creating a better recipe,” he said.
The elephant in the room, as it relates to the changing face of the industry, according to Keane, is that at present when industry professionals look across that table at other industry professionals, they see themselves.
“If we’re struggling to have enough people, we have a bigger problem,” he said, especially “if we are still basically recruiting the majority out of the white population.”
In a word, what’s needed, he said, is diversity.
“And we’re talking not just the health of the profession and having appropriate population representation, but also access to human capital,” he said.
To return to the original metaphor, Keane said the industry needs more cooks in the kitchen because the new ones bring new ideas and new ways of doing things.
The recruitment of Hispanics has paid off, as overall oil and gas hiring is compared well with other industries. But when it comes to blacks, the figures are less positive.
“When we look at black and African Americans — and this is the definition that the federal government uses — the geosciences have a very strange undulating pattern compared to everyone else,” said Keane.
Part of the reason for that is the government counts African geoscientists who rotate to the United States on assignment, say for an international oil company, into the overall numbers. But even using those visiting scientists, the number of blacks in oil and gas is anemic.
Take them out and the numbers barely register.
“Our African American representation is at the bottom of the curve. It’s awful,” said Keane.
Recruiting more minorities, providing a more welcoming environment is not just the right thing to do, Keane insisted, but the smart thing to do.
“If everyone at the top of the industry food chain all comes from the same place and has the same color, it doesn’t look accessible,” he said.
The crew change, ultimately, will need new uniforms for the new jobs, new people in those uniforms who have never been a part of the greater picture, and a new narrative that will drive the crew change.
“But cultural change is tough, and I hope that the community will be able to take it to heart. We don’t have to just make progress one funeral at a time,” he added.