November 2022

Drilling Advances: Plugging the brain drain

A mere 400 petroleum engineers are expected to graduate from U.S. universities in 2022, representing an 83% decline from the 2017 peak. The number of incoming students suggest that trend is not likely to change significantly anytime soon. What can the industry to tackle the challenge of attracting and retaining desperately needed technical talent?
Jim Redden / Contributing Editor

Remote and hybrid work environments present technical whiz kids a clear choice when entering a university to prepare for their eventual careers:  train for a job that allows logging into work in the comfort of their homes, wearing sweatpants and enjoying a cuppa, or else sign on to a career that all-too-often leads to the dreaded midnight call to rush out to a West Texas or North Sea wellsite to resolve a pressing technical issue in the dead of winter. 

It appears the former may be winning out, particularly in the U.S. A mere 400 petroleum engineers are expected to graduate from U.S. universities in 2022, representing an 83% decline from the 2017 peak, Texas Tech University professor Lloyd Heinz found in his latest survey of enrollments at petroleum-related schools worldwide. The number of incoming students suggest that trend is not likely to change significantly anytime soon. "Year-over-year, we see the enrollment of students declining," says Eric van Oort, petroleum engineering professor at The University of Texas at Austin. "We're also seeing a reduction in the number of graduate student applications, certainly from the U.S."  

Among the top reasons is "tough competition" from other industries offering a more agreeable work-life balance and perhaps more closely aligned with some students' environmental, societal and governance (ESG) leanings. And, while it's hard to quibble over the starting salaries of newly minted petroleum engineers and the like, notorious boom and bust cycles generate consternation that a high-paying job today may not be there tomorrow, says industry hand-turned federal employee Scott Beautz, project manager at the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL). "The fluctuations in our industry are extremely nerve-racking for the younger generation, I would say," said the 2018 recipient of a petroleum engineering degree from Louisiana State University (LSU).  

The challenge of attracting and retaining desperately needed technical talent was tackled at the Sept. 21 IADC Drilling Engineering Committee's (DEC) quarterly technology forum. The forum followed IADC board members' outreach to universities serving as the primary pipelines for petroleum engineers and related disciplines. This, at a time when public "sentiment of our industry is fading" amid unprecedented demand for technical expertise.  

Some of the suggestions aired at the forum will ultimately be meshed into a manifesto of sorts that will be circulated under the IADC banner to operators, service companies, drilling contractors and academia, with recommendations on how to draw in prospects and also keep high-performing newbies fully engaged in the industry. "We looked inward to see if there is something all of our companies can do to make our industry more attractive for a life-long career," said Blaine Dow, Schlumberger MPD/UBD global operations manager and a DEC board member.  

Expanding collaboration. Breaking down silos and establishing a more open collaborative network across generations and domains was suggested as one way to attract talent and keep them energized throughout their career. "We may be our own worst enemy," said Matt Isbell, Hess Corp. senior drilling engineering advisor. "We need more collaboration between operators, contractors and service companies, but also other industry partners. We need to collaborate throughout our careers, and we need to address the boom-and-bust trends that we see." 

Isbell noted professional societies should also step up and increase outreach early in a student's university tenure. "Many of us didn't join until we were five to 10 years into our careers. Societies need to think about reclaiming their position to collaborate more with younger generations." 

Social media, of course, is a sure way of drawing in the younger set, in particular. "But, we need to be strategic on how we do it. Somehow, we've got to figure out how to be in front of people all the time," Isbell said. Another key challenge is squaring graduates' expectations with what they actually witness on the job, which van Oort suggested has not always been entirely positive.   

Recruiting, development. Companies were encouraged to revive internships and, once a graduate is hired, consider secondment programs. A new service company employee, for instance, could be seconded to a drilling contractor or operator for a period to gain more wide-ranging industry experience.   

"Internship programs encourage people to not necessarily stay with that company, but stay within the industry," says Robert Estes, chief technical advisor of Halliburton's Sperry Drilling, noting companies should reverse the "slowing down" of continual learning programs. "We must emphasize quality of life and provide a place where employees can learn for life and make meaningful changes," Estes said.  

Applied technology push. It would help entice prospective engineers by fast-tracking the deployment of applied technologies, especially real-time data analysis, that will be required tools for tomorrow's drilling engineers, Beautz said. "And complement that with internships and real-time field experience, where they are using the technology in real life," he added.  

Universities, likewise, should emphasize the physics behind drilling dynamics and provide the option for double majors in petroleum and mechanical engineering. "Complementary applied drilling dynamics should be incorporated into college courses. During my time at LSU, there were drilling courses, but not applied drilling courses, incorporating physics-based real-time monitoring and integrated operations." 

Curriculums, likewise, should include the full energy realm, including geothermal, hydrogen storage and similar applications.  

The rebranding question. Has the "oil and gas" moniker become off-putting, especially to young folk with an ESG bent, and should the industry consider a wholesale rebrand to "energy development" or something similar? "I think we need to rebrand as the energy industry,” suggested ExxonMobil Drilling Mechanics Advisor Paul Pastusek. "Forget about oil and gas, and say energy in all forms is what makes life better." 

Nomenclature aside, the industry must be more effective in presenting its case to the general public, with an educational campaign built around energy security, says Dow, one of the forum's chief organizers. "We need to emphasize how oil and gas compares to other energy sources in terms of environmental footprint and in terms of energy produced versus effort to get it," he said. 

To that end, IADC is considering retaining a marketing firm to develop a unified message that can be distributed to all stakeholders. One of the key objectives should be drowning out those spreading the view that fossil fuels are the scourge of society. "It takes no effort to scare people. If you say oil and gas is bad, it takes nothing to get people out into the streets," says van Oort. "But, educating people requires effort. That's why we're losing the battle. We haven't explained the benefits of oil and gas to society."  

About the Authors
Jim Redden
Contributing Editor
Jim Redden is a Houston-based consultant and a journalism graduate of Marshall University, has more than 40 years of experience as a writer, editor and corporate communicator, primarily on the upstream oil and gas industry.
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