For a long time, executives and human resource professionals have discussed the challenges the oil and gas industry would face once baby boomers began to enter retirement age. During the late ‘90s and early 2000s, recruitment and training efforts increased to prepare for the impending crew change. The main objective was to implement a plan to ensure the availability of a qualified work force and a smooth transition once baby boomers started to retire.
Unfortunately, the volatility of oil prices during the last two decades and the very cyclical nature of our business have interrupted the continuity of these programs, resulting in reactive hiring practices and drastic fluctuations in the allocation of resources for professional development initiatives within companies.
Generation X geoscientists and engineers – also referred to in “geo speech” as the “syncliners” – are the generation that follows after the baby boomers and precede the millennials. There are some differences of opinion regarding the exact definition of Generation X, in terms of birth years, but demographers and researchers typically agree to the range of the early-to-mid ‘60s to the early ‘80s.
The authors of this piece are part of the syncliner generation – a group of geoscientists and engineers who have experienced the ups and downs of the hiring frenzy while facing the challenges of crafting a mid-career path during times of uncertainty intermingled with times of great opportunity. Statistically speaking, we are not that numerous and we are sandwiched between the baby boomers and the millennials, so our personality traits are not as widely discussed as theirs. Media outlets don’t write as many opinion pieces about us, but somehow, we are the generation who are going to be left to run the show, at least for a while.
The question is: Are we ready?
So, when Stephanie Nwoko proposed the Mid-Career Special Session to the 2019 AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition to General Conference Co-Chair Lorena Moscardelli, it was wholly supported and approved to go ahead. The session was a collaborative effort and was put together with the help of co-moderators Dallas Dunlap (2019 ACE vice co-chair), Nwoko and Moscardelli. AAPG President Denise Cox, Executive Director David Curtiss and Sections Vice President Jeffrey Aldrich were supportive of this effort and present during the forum, where they addressed some pressing questions and discussed AAPG’s view on the generational gap, declining involvement of mid-career professionals, and what can be done to jumpstart this generation’s era.
Within the context of ACE 2019, we gathered a group of mid-career professionals from very diverse backgrounds and hosted a forum to share experiences, lessons learned and to discuss potential solutions and actions to face the many challenges that are in front of us in the coming years. The room was packed by a multi-generational and very diverse group of conference attendees, and even though we couldn’t cover all the topics the discussion was dynamic, interesting, engaging and above all, inspiring. Our attempt here is to summarize some of the main talking points and to capture the overall opinions from panelists and participants. We think that this is an excellent starting point for a conversation that should be deeper and more inclusive within the AAPG membership so that our profession can benefit from these insights and we can strive to truly achieve a sustainable future!
Regarding the Crew Change
It is hard to summarize or fully understand how succession plans are conceptualized and implemented within the multitude of companies that are part of the energy business, since each has its own philosophy and direction. It is also important to acknowledge that not all mid-career professionals have the ambition to climb the corporate ladder via managerial positions. Instead, the professional interest of many “nerdy” syncliners will remain deeply anchored on the development and deployment of their technical and/or operational skills. Embracing a plural set of interests and ambitions is highly valuable, since both managerial and technical skill sets are necessary to discover, produce and commercialize energy resources. Mid-career professionals have the expectation that employers will equally value, compensate and support both managerial and technical contributions. This is something to keep in mind if talent retention is to be considered a priority for our industry.
Regardless of your own professional interests as a mid-career professional, managerial or technical, it is sometimes hard to grasp how to develop new skills and leadership traits. In an era in which training budgets continue to shrink and learning-by-doing might be the most cost-effective option, we are all called to be more proactive and take ownership of our own development.
Vanessa Kertznus of Shell summarized it nicely during the forum when she said, “We will continue to see senior staff nearing retirement age. It is everyone’s responsibility to step up to offset the ever-growing knowledge gap. It is as important that senior staff take the initiative to coach, mentor and transfer their knowledge and skillsets to those coming up the technical and leadership ladders, as it is for junior to mid-level career staff to be curious and self-aware and take the initiative to engage and learn as much as they can from those nearing retirement, as well as the courage to step up and fill those gaps.”
As mid-career professionals, we might find ourselves today pondering our career ambitions and the path ahead of us. This can be a road of great satisfaction if you are en route to achieve your objectives, it can also become a place of great frustration if you are somehow “stuck.”
Nancy Slatter of Cabral Energy spoke of endurance, passion and setting up goals using her inspiring bike-trip experience around the world a few years back as an analogy.
“Each point is just a point to reach and by the time you realize it, you have reached the top of the mountain. The next step is to take a higher challenge, a higher mountain,” she said. “Focus toward your goals and keep practicing. If you don’t succeed the first time, try and try again. Do not focus on your obstacles, be resilient and strong. When obstacles are in your way, focus on the positive around you and turn things around by doing something to help instigate positive change and make an impact on what you are trying to achieve.”
Setting up goals requires a certain degree of introspection since it is not always easy to decide which route to take in an ever changing and unpredictable industry like ours.
Diana Duran of Occidental Petroleum shared some thoughts that highlight the importance of pausing to try to design a successful career while keeping some balance in your life.
“Have a vision of your life and how your career will fit in it. Be honest and be prepared for change,” she said. “Each year look into your technical and soft skills, realize what you excel on and what you want to work on a specific year. Remember, think of your career as a marathon. It takes time to build skill sets and therefore pacing is essential to not get burned out. Each experience is unique, and it needs to be embraced.”
Nysha Chaderton of ExxonMobil provided practical advice on how to approach goals collectively, which can be a very effective strategy to advance your own career in this era of collaboration
“Contributing through others as an individual contributor can be achieved by leveraging your relationships with subject matter experts to find solutions that include your peers; executing and increasing the effectiveness of not just yourself but the entire team, building trust along the way; and identifying opportunities for capability enhancement (gap identification),” she said.
We are in an era when the good stewardship of the Earth is part of our mandate, and it is also ingrained as part of our values at a corporate and personal level. Still, the world’s energy demand is a reality and we have a responsibility to find and produce the resources that “keep the lights on” while we transition into cleaner and more sustainable sources of energy. This requires access to experienced professionals with access to new knowledge, so that they can optimize the way they work and find new ways to innovate. Continued investment by industry will be necessary to keep developing mid-career professionals, as well as for the recruitment of new talent.
As an academic and former industry employee, Michael Pyrcz of The Universty of Texas at Austin summarized the challenges for both industry and academia, highlighting the need for commitment to face a potential shortage of talent in the near future.
“The Big Crew Change or other challenges in finding professionals with the required level of experience and skills will remain due to temporal paradoxes of short cycle markets and long cycle projects and capability development,” he said. “Our industry must remain committed to hiring university graduates and supporting graduate studies or the supply of new talent will be disrupted.”
“Students are very nervous of the commitment to Oil and Gas focused degrees,” Pyrcz added.
We completely agree with Michael and we would add that the resource commitment by industry and professional associations also needs to keep pace with the professional development, retention and engagement of mid-career professionals. We have seen that during the recent downturn, some of our mid-career colleagues have given up the search for new positions within our industry to shift gears into other fields that are not related to the geosciences, engineering or to the search for energy resources in general. If we had a surplus of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) professionals as well as abundant and easily accessible energy sources around the world, this new trend probably wouldn’t be a source of concern, but that’s not the case. We have also seen lack of engagement by some of our mid-career colleagues, especially in academia, where the reputation of the energy industry, as well as of professional associations such as AAPG, has been eroding. A lack of historical clarity on an AAPG climate position, academic inclusion and perceived demographic bias have contributed to this erosion of trust, among other causes.
The Diversity Factor
Diversity! We have all heard about the importance of bringing diversity to the workplace, but even though the conversation has been ongoing for a long time, there is still much to be achieved on this topic. There is also an equal amount of frustration on a daily basis by many in workplaces, professional associations and communities.
Why has it taken us so long to implement all these wonderful ideas about the “diversification” of the workforce, professional associations and our neighborhoods? Even though we didn’t have time to dive too much on this topic during the forum at ACE, we think it is important to start an open and honest conversation about the elusive topic that is diversity. It would be impossible to cover all aspects of this complex topic, but the first thing that we feel is important to talk about is the very concept of what we understand by “diversity.”
Diversity is, above all, about people. Diversity is about looking at people as individuals and recognize the richness of thoughts and ideas that they bring to the table. Diversity is not only about gender, or ethnic background, or nationality, or creed, or sexual orientation or any of the innumerable categories that are out there to “classify” people. Diversity is really about diversity of thought, and it happens to be that your thoughts are linked to your background. The best way to encourage and celebrate diversity is by recognizing people’s faces, names, accomplishments and hard work -- just by providing an equal platform of exposure to these groups, as you do for non-minority individuals. Minority individuals are not specimens to be only mentioned by category (for example, “a woman,” “a black man,” etc.). They are people and should be mentioned by name, because even though this is not about “individuals,” this is what it takes to attract more people like them to a certain field: a face, an identity, and not merely a cold category without personality!
There is also a lesson that needs to be learned by those who identify as members of a minority class and who might feel shy or insecure about showing their whole self to their professional world.
Nysha Chaderton of ExxonMobil said it all:“The more authentically ‘Nysha’ I have been at work, the more I have been rewarded with roles that not only fit my skillsets but also, my interests, which goes a long way towards being more engaged and effective,” she said. “Bring more ‘you’ to work and encourage and support others to do the same. It will not only be personally rewarding to embrace the diversity that you bring to the table, but also have a positive impact on your peers and your corporation as a whole.”
We can see some rolling eyes right now – some people might be afraid of the “bringing more ‘you’ to work” because they might have legitimate reasons to believe that they won’t be accepted or supported.
If this is the case, you are in the wrong place, and as challenging and painful as it might sound, you need to move to new opportunities when possible. However, consider what would happen if “bringing more ‘you’ to work” could actually end up revealing that those around you and above you are a welcoming bunch of people willing to learn from you and support you. Each situation is unique, but we would like to invite you to consider the thought!
Diversity, as mentioned before, is not only about how you look or think or about your preferences, but it is also about how you conduct yourself and interact with others.
Diana Duran hits the essence of this concept when she points out that you – minority category or not – should maintain a neutral relationship with everyone in your team.
“You may lean toward a certain niche of friends because you have something in common, but try to connect with everyone by learning something about each of them. You never know when you may need extra help. Also, give a compliment or two where is needed,” she said.
We also challenge the traditional idea that in order to be “diverse,” you need a specific ethnic background or gender or traditional category over your shoulders. Your own narrative regarding your life experiences and your way of thinking are as important to the diversity discourse as any other aspects. It is a bundle!
During the forum at ACE, Michael Pyrcz shared with the audience some of his challenging life experiences, and this level of connection sometimes is what is needed to inspire those who might find themselves in similar situations.
“Education changes lives – my own personal experience as a first-generation university graduate from a low-income family – and the energy sector is still an attractive career opportunity for students; it is high tech and exciting,” he said.
Diversity is also about disabilities and about our colleagues who struggle with health conditions that range from the physical to the psychological, from the cognitive to the neurological. They all bring to the table valuable lessons and life experiences that can add incredible value to our business: strength to deal with physical pain that can be long lasting and chronic, resilience while developing new skills to navigate physical mobility impairments, courage to face an audience while dealing with a speech or hearing impediment, patience and serenity while trying to conquer the battle against depression. Diversity awareness requires the development of a wide range of personal attributes such as empathy, compassion and humility to learn from the experiences of those who are different than us. As you can see, bringing diversity to an organization is not a trivial exercise but a task that requires the willingness to engage into a broader human experience. You need to be willing to connect with different, with new and sometimes with challenging people, because diversity is about ideas and worldviews that might be different than yours, but still valuable.
There are many challenges for today’s mid-career professionals but perhaps the most pressing is the challenge of how to implement change and facilitate innovation when we are still developing and climbing the leadership ladder? How to bridge the generational gap that poses barriers regarding work authority between baby boomers, Generation X and millennials, so that we can have highly functional teams in our industry?
Vanessa Kertznus of Shell provided some insightful comments:
“Regarding influencing without authority … As you start to step into positions in which you are no longer an individual contributor, your ability to build relationships, to paint a clear picture of what success looks like, to drive collaboration and to influence people across a spectrum of expertise levels without authority, will determine your ability to deliver and carry out your initiatives,” she said.
Diana Duran offered some additional insights that highlight the need to develop some self-awareness and courage to stand up to our values and technical criteria without allowing excessive self-confidence or arrogance to muddy the waters around us:
“Learn how to have empathy toward others and how to use ‘verbal judo.’ Communication is one of the key skills in having a successful career because it is how people will perceive you. Being likeable does not mean that you must agree with everyone, but you should be able to respect people’s opinions and also stand your ground. Be willing to stick to your values and recommendations! It is OK every now and then to go ‘against the grain,’” she said.
In an industry with instability and constant drastic changes, oil and gas professionals also have to be able to adapt and become equipped to ride these frequent storms.
Ika Novianti of Ion Geophysical alluded to this from a service company’s perspective.
“(The) first global layoffs were early 2014, and by 2016, most of the small services companies were gone, and some that survived operated with half or one-third the size as before,” she said. “With the light assets and lean staffs, most of us are operating more carefully. Somehow, we tend to think, evaluate, plan and execute things that make bigger impacts and greater returns. In other words, people started to demonstrate these values: adaptability, flexibility, and courage to take challenges, try things we never tried before, to do more, to push harder.”
As a professional in the workplace; you need to add value – to be an invaluable asset to the company, be willing to broaden your technical skillsets by learning and keeping up to date with new technology, and be resilient.
As part of a very diverse syncliner generation, we are looking forward to keep pushing and pulling our industry into a path of success. We envision a future in which energy resources continue to be the main anchor for the development of our world, while sustainability and the environment are kept at the forefront of our decision-making processes. Energy, for us, is a broader concept that includes hydrocarbons, but that goes beyond them. We also acknowledge that we have a responsibility to help ensure that the lights continue to shine in the developed world and that new lights of opportunity and equality be also present in developing countries where energy deprivation is a reality that needs to be addressed. We are committed to take on the challenges that are ahead of us!
The energy economy is evolving so fast and will only continue to accelerate, but with this rapid change come so many opportunities for personal and professional growth. The future for the professional at any career age can be bright and full of exciting challenges with rewarding accomplishments.
Our recommendation, given the success of this forum, is that AAPG continue to make space for these dynamic interactions, and that mid-career geoscientists be called to be more involved with the planning of conferences, technical events and forums in conjunction with our baby boomer and millennial colleagues.