Why doesn't anyone want to be a petroleum engineer?

July 1, 2002
For years, any time two or more industry veterans gather, the topic of manpower has come up.

For years, any time two or more industry veterans gather, the topic of manpower has come up. Speakers at conferences, industry luncheons, and press briefings lament the fact that the average age of their employees continues to increase, while fewer and fewer new engineers choose to enter the petroleum industry. As these older workers begin to retire, a shortage of manpower and experience develops.

Various experts have offered theories for this phenomenon as well as a handful of pat solutions. Basically, the argument goes like this: Young people were discouraged from pursuing a career in the petroleum industry by parents who were laid off or otherwise let down by their employers. Those whose parents were not involved in the industry were discouraged by second-hand accounts of layoffs and downsizing. In addition, the industry has a horrible public image as an environmental polluter with no regard for anything but increasing profits. We've been blamed for everything from the Gulf War to global warming.

The young engineers who were attracted to the industry in the mid-90s (remember those signing bonuses?) were first to be laid off when things turned sour. It will not be easy to either draw them back for a second round or attract new employees who saw this whole boom-to-bust cycle unfold over a three-year period.

Kids today have no loyalty to their employers and are interested in little more than a paycheck, the larger the better. Who can blame them? After all, it's the employers who taught them the rules of the game. When otherwise competent employees are cut to save costs, the clear message to these workers is, "Look out for number one."

So then the stage is set for lengthy discussions on how to attract new engineers into this industry and recover those who fled after being laid off. After a recent presentation on this topic, one young engineer, who is in the industry, made an interesting observation. He noticed that all the people from industry, academia, and the government invited to speak were well over the age where they could be considered young engineers. He commented that no one asks the young people what they want out of a job.

While this is, of course, a sampling of one, and there is no denying such a gathering is productive, he does make a point.

The common argument is that these engineers need to be challenged, they need responsibility, attractive salaries, and job security. The public needs to be educated about all the wonderful things the energy sector does for the environment and the developing nations where it has operations. Oh, and the next time prices go in the toilet, operators should not lay off employees.

These are lofty goals and so far have not made a significant dent in the public mindset. The young engineer commenting after this presentation pointed out some basic advantages that lured him to the industry and will keep him here. He said the key consideration for him wasn't salary or job security, but rather autonomy. He likes the idea that an employer will train and equip him, charge him with a task, then drop him in a remote area to get the job done.

It's a lot of responsibility, he said, but there isn't anyone else to do the job. You're all by yourself making decisions and working out complicated problems using only what you have been taught. Do a good job and you can move up fast.

For many front office employees, this would be a nightmare scenario - abandoned after a brief orientation to sink or swim. But for a motivated self-starter who has the tools he needs to succeed, it represents a unique opportunity to prove himself. Where, outside of this industry, could a young employee wield such authority? This was the core of the young engineer's argument. The freedom and adventure attracted him to the petroleum industry.

While this may be an isolated opinion, it is true that in traveling, one meets a number of young people with similar passions. They are more interested in the structure of the rotating schedule and the challenges of their assignment than what time they will be home for dinner. It is possible that the industry is taking the wrong approach to new talent. Rather than focusing on the security of the job, it may be beneficial to emphasize the adventure involved and the responsibility of operating in the field.

These seem to be the driving forces behind the new generation of engineers. They realize not only that there is no job security, but that each assignment is a challenge to their intellect and stamina. Offshore exploration in particular may offer young professionals the opportunity to work in one of the handful of places left on the globe where adventure can still be found.

William Furlow