HOUSTON—The drive to become more efficient and cost-effective in the oil patch has led the industry into a new digital age where machine learning can help predict when equipment may fail based on historical data and robots are capable of tackling routine or repetitive tasks.

But what does that mean for today’s human workforce as focus intensifies on digital technology innovation?

Several people attending the American Energy Society’s Digital Oilfield event recently in Houston wanted to know whether there would still be a place for roughnecks and mud guys in the emerging digital world. Someone asked, “Are roughnecks being replaced by 25-year-old software engineers?”

Panelists seemed to agree that workers will still be needed in oil and gas fields, although some roles may change in the future—if they haven’t already.

“The more jewelry we put on the wells and pads out there, we’re going to have people that are making sure the sensors are working and the communication is working—the whole nine yards,” said Jim Claunch, vice president of operational excellence for Statoil. “We are also looking at broader skillsets for those people.” That, he added, is a good thing.

Certain technologies may mean fewer workers are needed in areas such as those involving repetitive or simpler tasks. Robotic vehicles are being used offshore to inspect and make minor subsea repairs; drones are being used to inspect pipelines; and other midstream infrastructure and rigs are becoming more automated. National Oilwell Varco’s Iron Roughneck, for example, automates the task of connecting drillpipe, reducing the number of roustabouts needed for the job. In some cases, the Iron Roughneck can be operated from a driller’s cabin without the need of human personnel.

Roles will change, although work at plants and the wellhead will continue—even if that work is being run from a remote operations center, said Scott Desmarais, a partner at McKinsey & Co. He also pointed out the presence of headcount reductions, upcoming retirements and the industry’s annual turnover rate of between 7% and 8%.

Roughnecks will still be needed, but a slightly different type, in addition to roles involving advanced analytics and supporting positions, Desmarais added. He compared the evolving role to mechanics in the automotive industry.

“The tools that that mechanic is using I think is a good litmus test to what you’re going to see in our industrial application as well and how that is changing,” he said. “A mechanic 30 years ago didn’t use electronics whatsoever. Today, they’ve almost got to be an electronics tech in addition to pulling that engine out.”

Panelists agreed that a lot of work is not going away soon.

“Ultimately, somebody has got to weld; somebody’s got to grind; somebody’s got to lift. There still has to be some good old-fashioned work that’s going to get done until robotics” carries out more tasks, said Jon Krome, head of operations, maintenance and improvement (petroleum) for BHP Billiton. That could be decades from now. “Is technology going to outsource everybody? The answer is absolutely not. Is it going to take an edge off of some of the very high risk perhaps most manual of the labor force? Absolutely.”

He acknowledged that technological advances are making it possible today for fewer people to perform some roles in the industry, freeing them up to do other tasks. Krome used drillships as an example, saying “some of the most sophisticated drillships in the world today have fewer people because of technology.”

In reality, the oil and gas industry is a far away from being able to “eliminate the physical man-to-machine interface in the field. There will always be some of that,” added Bill Johnson, chief transformation officer for DCP Midstream.

Changes in today’s workforce require the ability to be more collaborative, work in different ways, leverage skills across broader areas and acquire new skills, Johnson said. Conversations are being held with the company’s workforce about the value of these attributes as discussions take place about how to train workers.

Paul Miller, executive director of Big Data and advanced analytics for Oracle, also spoke about the need for collaboration, saying people who can’t transition into a “collaborative culture” will struggle. “It’s one of the biggest challenges to longevity of some of that roughneck culture that has been cultivated over the last 40, 50, 60 years.”

Velda Addison can be reached at vaddison@hartenergy.com.