Who are the “future energy geoscientists” and in what kind of professional world will they work?
Veteran petroleum geologist and organizational leader Chandler Wilhelm envisions a changing industry that will require different skills and provide new and different opportunities for young professionals and students beginning to choose their career paths.
Wilhelm also suggests that the next generation is arriving with skills, goals and priorities that will require the industry to adapt to the employees’ expectations if it hopes to recruit and retain them.
“I have worked for many years in both conventional and unconventional oil and gas, and as these businesses mature I see increasing divergence in the career opportunities for geoscience professionals. The rise of the unconventionals business in the past decade will fundamentally change the choices available to the future energy geoscientist,” Wilhelm said.
“Geoscientists in these respective businesses will need different technical skills and will have different choices on where to live and work,” he said.
The Old Skills and the New
As new technologies develop with new skills to be mastered, the basics still matter.
“Economically successful projects are still underpinned by good geoscience that is well integrated with engineering and commercial disciplines. Finally, geoscientists will continue to need to be good integrators, ‘connecting the dots’ to envision opportunity where data are ambiguous or incomplete,” said Wilhelm.
“I believe that this is where our profession creates the most value, over and above bringing simple technical competence to a project. The classic statement by AAPG Founding Member Wallace Pratt that ‘oil is first found in the minds of explorers’ applies now more than ever, and in all parts of our industry, conventional and unconventional alike,” he added
Digital skills will also be a basic requirement for success and advancement for the future energy geoscientist, he said.
“The relentless drive for efficiency that is required for businesses to sustain profitability will require that geoscientists be able to independently manage and analyze large data sets, regardless of whether that data set is a large offshore marine seismic survey or an onshore unconventional play with thousands of wells,” he said.
“Particularly in the unconventionals, there is increasing drive to use ‘analytics,’ or what some call ‘multivariate analysis,’ to continue to optimize estimated ultimate recovery by finding the right combination of reservoir landing zone, wellbore azimuth, lateral length, well spacing, completion intensity, and reservoir drawdown,” he added.
Wilhelm said some view this more as an engineering than geoscience challenge, these analyses must be map-based, relying “fundamentally on a sound understanding of regional geology in order to be able to separate the impact of geology from engineering and operating practice. This is why geoscientists play an essential role in the application of analytics to unconventional plays, and why they will need to have strong digital skills to be competitive.”
In addition to a solid basis in geoscience, students entering the workforce will need need strong critical thinking skills and an aptitude to continuous learning, he said.
Cooperation between industry and academia is important to provide students with a taste of real-world challenges.
“I have seen some different approaches used to help meet this common goal. Some schools such as the Colorado School of Mines run research consortia on topics of relevance to industry, with industry funding of student projects that address fundamental questions with economic significance. These types of programs help to foster a sense of shared mission between industry and academia,” Wilhelm said.
He said multidisciplinary knowledge is increasingly important for the future energy geoscientist.
Familiarity or basic competence in areas such as geographic information systems, petrophysics, geomechanics and economics will be needed to foster efficient teamwork and career advancement, he said.
Tight budgets might limit some geoscience departments from offering such broad choices, but Wilhelm said other options are available through professional societies, online learning and companies that specialize in professional training.
“I have also seen new multidisciplinary degree programs or certificates in energy management being offered by some leading universities that may fit the needs of some students,” he said.
As the industry emerges from a severe downturn, “Those that have survived are leaner and generally committed to running their businesses to prosper in a future with low and volatile commodity prices.
“There is no way to sugarcoat the challenge this has created for early-career professionals who have been trying to start their careers during this difficult period,” Wilhelm said.
He said businesses have begun to rely more on digital media to help match jobs with candidates.
“Professional societies such as the AAPG and its Division of Professional Affairs have also responded by creating new membership categories to attract early-career professionals and provide a means to creating a deeper network to help identify opportunities,” he added.
After the Great Crew Change
Preserving and passing on lessons learned through experience is also important.
“Many senior professionals enjoy the opportunity to help early-career professionals. It is a source of new relationships and helps remind people like myself what it was that attracted us to this great profession in the first place,” said Wilhelm. “Again, professional societies such as the AAPG have expanded their use of digital media to help match early career professionals with experienced mentors. The AAPG Foundation also provides an array of programs to help students and early-career professionals, mainly with educational funding assistance, but also by sponsoring programs such as the Visiting Geoscientist Program to help connect senior professionals with students to share their experiences.”
Many companies have mentoring programs, and Wilhelm said he has participated as a mentor at Shell for years.
“Digital tools will never substitute for quality time spent with another person,” he noted.
Wilhelm said the future will bring not only a changing workplace, but a changing workforce.
“The “Great Crew Change” that has been written about for so many years is probably coming to an end, as this latest downturn has resulted in the retirement of many of the remaining senior technical professionals in our industry. Increasingly, the future will be in the hands of the next generation of professionals, particularly those so-called millennials – that large demographic wave born between 1980 and 1995.
“By the end of this decade, they will occupy about 50 percent of the total U.S. workforce, and probably a larger percentage of our profession. It is a remarkable generation – well educated, socially concerned and incredibly adept at using information technology and social media,” he said.
“According to the consulting firm, Global Collaborations, Inc., 45 percent of millennials will choose workplace flexibility over pay, 72 percent want a job that has an impact, and 70 percent say that giving back and social impact are their highest priorities. They are impatient with bureaucracy and desire responsibility. This leads to some interesting speculation on the impact of this generational change on our profession,” he said.
More flexible employment relationships will be supported by ever-stronger information technology platforms to enable work in “virtual teams,” he said.
“All of this would need to be supported by ever stronger online continuing education platforms to enable professionals to remain current in their fields.”
Wilhelm said companies will need to make the transition from survival mode and prepare for the “war for talent” that may accompany the next upturn.
“The next few decades promise to be challenging, rewarding, and exciting. I am confident that there will be good times as well as tough times. I am equally confident that when the “future energy geoscientists” eventually retire, they will look back and see that it was quite a ride.”