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University of Houston symposium tackles the great crew change

Energy symposium emphasizes necessity for collaboration between academia and industry to tackle impending skills shortage.
University of Houston symposium tackles the great crew change
The current slump in oil prices has many oil and gas employees justifiably concerned about job security.  That uncertainty stretches not just to those currently within the industry, but students pursuing energy-related degrees.  Because of the downturn, those students, such as petroleum engineers, are finding it difficult to obtain internships and full-time positions upon graduation, despite the impending crew change.
Since the last downturn that rocked the industry in the 1980s, there has been a perceived skills shortage. And since many baby boomers are about to retire from the industry, companies will have to compensate for the personnel shortage by hiring fresh talent.  However, this situation presents its own challenges.  Preparation strategies for the oil and gas industry and academia regarding “the great crew change,” were discussed at the finale of the University of Houston Energy Symposium Series in late March.
 
While the symposium finale made note of the current employment difficulties faced by many students pursuing energy-related degrees, the speakers were generally optimistic about this particular challenge due to its temporary nature.  Instead, the session’s primary focus aimed at sorting out the impending skills shortage resulting from the number of industry professionals about to retire.
 
“Baby boomers make up more than 33% of the US population and a very large percentage of the workforce for industry,” said Elaine Cullen, president of Prima Consulting Services and former researcher for the US Bureau of Mines.  “They will retire, taking with them not only the skills they have, but the wisdom they have obtained through experience.” In her presentation, Cullen went on to reveal a disturbing trend.  “The vast majority of fatalities and near-misses on an oilfield occur with workers retaining less than five years of experience. 
 
“Wisdom is knowing what to do because you have seen it before,” she said.  Indeed, the situation begs the question: “Where will incoming industry employees obtain the skills and wisdom necessary to operate safely and effectively?” 
 
According to Elaine Cullen, the classroom should be a starting point for students to acquire these skills. Unfortunately, recent data shows disheartening trends here as well. In a recent poll administered by the Aspen Institute, over 97% of leaders in higher education consider their students well-prepared to perform their job duties on day one.  However, there is an extreme discrepancy when various business leaders were asked the same question.  
 
“Only 10% of industry leaders polled consider a recent college graduate well prepared to perform his or her job description immediately after graduation,” said John Colborn of the Aspen Institute.  To address this issue, Colborn suggested an increased level of collaboration between industry and academia.  Greater communication between the two entities will result in academic programs more clearly aligned with industry needs, as well as partnerships between corporations and specific academic institutions capable of generating more co-op and internship programs.
 
While it seems fairly certain that the oil and gas industry has no choice but to compensate for the great crew change by means of acquiring more personnel through hiring, there are multiple challenges and discrepancies that need to be addressed by the oil and gas community, both in terms of industry and academia. The UH Energy Symposium finale addressed this by ending the session on a hopeful note which emphasized the need for immediate action.
 
“An increased collaboration between academic and industry professionals is extremely plausible,” continued Colborn.  “However, these two entities must act soon in order to effectively address the challenges presented by the great crew change.”

Image: (From left) Elaine Cullen, John Colborn and Laura Isensee/ University of Houston

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