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How should Young Professionals cope during a reduced oil price?

Leilla Farkhondeh, DEVEX Aberdeen Formation Evaluation Society young professionals representative, reports from the DEVEX Young Professionals Event, May 2015.
How should Young Professionals cope during a reduced oil price?

When taking on the role of leading the DEVEX Young Professional’s event this year, I had one clear agenda in mind, “to address a topic that MATTERS to young professionals.”

Whilst topics that involve presenting a technical subject or soft skill are important, I cannot help but feel, as a young professional, that they do not address the real concerns that are somewhat difficult to raise in an ordinary working environment.

The idea of a panel discussion on “how should young professionals cope during a reduced oil price” was born after collaboration with Aberdeen Formation Evaluation Society (AFES), Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) and Petroleum Exploration Society of Great Britain (PESGB) young professionals. This was undoubtfully a topical subject. In January 2015, at the time of promoting the event, the Brent oil price profile had dropped from the comfortable five-year trend of ~US$110/bbl to sub $50/bbl.

From this point to the lead up to the DEVEX conference in Aberdeen, late May, the consequences of the low oil price were being felt throughout the UK Young Professional’s network. We witnessed a reduction in the workforce, office closures, graduate programs cancelled, sponsorship withdrawals, mergers, company acquisitions and divestments. With these changes, it was hard to ignore the growing concerns felt by my peers in this industry, who had not faced anything like this before. Fortunately the DEVEX YP event showed foresight and a timely look into this matter.

The event evolved to include a conversation around six survey questions put to 95 DEVEX, AFES, SPE and PESGB young professionals and a panel discussion with leading industry professionals on three key questions:

  • Will the industry sustain careers for our generation of graduates and young professionals?
  • What opportunities could be created as a result of a downturn in oil price?
  • Are there any “survival tips” that can increase your chances of job retention or returning to work?

The panel was chaired by Deirdre O’Donnell (Founder/Managing Director of Working Smart) with panelists: Peter Brand (UK Subsurface Manager at TAQA Bratani), Rita Michel-Greiss (Business Development Manager, AGR TRACS), Chris Flavell (Managing Director, Zinc Consultants) and Former MP Sir Malcolm Bruce (Former Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats). Many of the panel had experienced previous downturns and even lost their jobs in the past, giving them firsthand experience to pass on.

About 100 people, mostly students, young professionals in work, young professionals that were seeking work and, unfortunately, some who had been made redundant, attended the event, which lasted more than two hours. 

Several messages were put across from the panel in response to the three key questions – such as, “a job is different from a career,” meaning that a “job for life” does not apply as much nowadays and, in difficult times, companies respect that employees may need move around both company and location in order to meet industry demands. The good news is that mobility, flexibility and resilience are well received qualities in our industry.

Additionally, we were told by panelists who have experienced multiple redundancies, we are employed in a cyclic industry, where the good times have served us well, but we also need to be prepared for hardship. In fact, Brand said: “part of why I love this industry is that we do not know what is around the corner, it is an exciting and dynamic industry that seeks adaptable people.” Sir Malcolm Bruce made an important comment to remind young professionals that while the going is good, “save for a rainy day.”

The panelists provided very valuable advice regarding survival tips for this industry. Michel-Greiss demonstrated personal examples of her willingness to travel with her work and making sure she would “shine” through her enthusiasm – but not at the expense of her team, as she made it clear that being a team player is very important. Michel-Greiss and O’Donnell both agreed that those in employment should not complain about their job and advised everyone to continue working hard and to take on additional opportunities, even those we may consider below our experience level – this industry is more financially rewarding than most… but we do have to work for it!

O’Donnell spoke of seizing opportunities that were not even intended for her, such as putting herself forward to travel to remote parts of the world, where senior members were reluctant to go. Once she demonstrated her competency on her first trip, she found it opened doors to many more opportunities and “the rest is history.”

For those seeking employment, Flavell remarked on an enterprising individual he had recently spoken to, who managed to put himself on “freebie” courses that otherwise are very expensive; this individual used his initiative to contact training organizations and managed to get placed onto courses that were not running at full capacity, in order to learn critical software or technical skills that could enhance his CV.

O’Donnell also mentioned making the most of free webinars that may focus on a specific technical topic and can also expand your network by connecting you with individuals in your discipline throughout the world.

The theme of mentorship came up during the panel discussion, when a straw poll of the audience found that a majority of those in employment were undergoing a formal mentoring program. For those who were not being mentored, Brand commented that sourcing someone yourself or asking academics or around your network to help you get in touch with a suitable mentor was a great idea for career development.

Flavell and Brand suggested that having the opinion from several senior mentors was better than one, as it gives you a broader experience base and more options to consider when discussing your career plans. O’Donnell recommended securing a fixed schedule of meetings with your mentor (e.g. one hour per week) and to go into these meetings with ideas prepared in advance in order to make the most of your time.

The final thoughts from the DEVEX YP panel discussion reinforced previous advice given from all of the panelists, namely to diversify and seek varied opportunities as highlighted by Sir Malcolm, where he continued by saying “there are opportunities globally and it is worthwhile to consider moving your career overseas for a period of time.”

Michel-Greiss supported the idea of diversifying in terms of career, by suggesting you market yourself as a “geoscientist” rather than a “geophysicist” for example, as she has seen many examples where individuals may have a broader knowledge of the geoscience and engineering disciplines than they portray in their prospective job role.

Another message was to “have hope” because some new companies may see the current low oil price as a good time to invest in the North Sea and they may be hiring – Flavell mentioned an example where a group of individuals are looking to establish a decommissioning company, which will require a variety of technical backgrounds with familiarity of this region. Additional skills that the panelists recommended using to your advantage include language skills, networking skills as well as soft skills obtained from life experience or your studies.

From the floor, young professionals wanted to know about progression to management, how to make sure the next generation isn’t lost to the industry (again), and how to keep going in the face of repeated knock-backs.

The panel responded saying that, due to the change in workforce, as the so-called “baby boomers” retire over the next few years, we will see early career and mid-career professionals moving into the next tier to fill these roles – which is also good news for those about to enter the oil industry.

A Masters student asked what was going to be done to make sure the next generation are not lost to the industry and is this case of history repeating itself? The panel said that they were hopeful that the industry has learned its lesson about losing the young from the workforce since the previous oil crashes in 1986, 1993 and 2008. Nonetheless, Sir Malcolm said a new government body had been set up to specifically address the oil industry (note: since the DEVEX YP event there are ongoing discussions to escalate the points addressed from this event to the new governing body).

A mother, representing her young professional daughter, who has been made redundant twice, also spoke. The daughter’s story was one that many in the room felt an emotional tie to, because she spoke of the confidence knock and subsequent resilience required for a youngster to go through two redundancies and to take on a role outside the industry in a call center in order to keep her career moving. The panel said the young woman showed great strength to be able to have gone through what she had and to take outside the industry – Michel-Greiss mentioned that the ability of this person to be proactive and work instead of waiting for a job to come her way is highly respectable and will stand her in good stead once the right opportunity arises, “being knocked down once and getting up is commendable, being knocked down again and still getting up is something not everybody can do and is testament to this persons resilience.”

Concluding the DEVEX Young Professionals event, O’Donnell summarized the key advice given from the panelists and conveyed her hope that we, as young professionals, would “ride the storm,” because the industry needed young professional as much as they need the industry. There are a lot of rewards (travel, financial, skills and culture) associated with working in the oil and gas industry and it had served her and the panel very well over their careers.

A few individuals approached me at the end of the event to say this was the platform they were hoping for, in order to express their concerns and to receive meaningful advice. Others said a “community” feel had been generated at this event and that the sense of being “in this together,” as young professionals, combined with the understanding and guidance from the experienced panel, was truly invaluable.

After all, the panelists are confirmation to those starting their career during difficult times that we can find opportunity and success from adversity.

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