[Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the January 2020 edition of E&P. Subscribe to the magazine here.]  

On the heels of the 2019 Global Energy Talent Index (GETI), the report’s authors came together to discuss the sector’s ongoing struggle with the skills gap and what can be done to ensure oil and gas companies begin to close it.

Roundtable participants included

  • Janette Marx, Airswift CEO;
  • Jim Stuart, senior vice president of Digital Products at Lloyd’s Register; and
  • Hannah Peet, managing director at Energy Jobline.

The GETI revealed that the industry (40%) is already in the midst of a signifi cant skills crisis. How is this impact being felt?

Peet: The people working in the sector feel this [crisis]. Maybe there are not as many people supporting them in their roles as they would like, and they are feeling that pinch. I think young people in particular are conscious of the skills gap. They are happy on the whole, but maybe they’re seeing bigger workloads than expected, less training or leaner teams. People were understandably cutting back during the downturn, which trickles down and now we are feeling the consequences.

Stuart: I would agree; it’s something we notice a lot and you’re right that it feels more pronounced a few years downstream from the downturn. We see the impact broadly anywhere where you have heavy industry with complex systems. These systems take really specific knowledge to operate and those people are at the frontline of the skills crisis.

Marx: People are feeling the pressure from smaller teams. On the other hand, we should not neglect to mention the upside for people in the industry, which is that the skills shortage is putting upward pressure on wages. We have talked a lot about the people, which is right as they are the lifeblood of any company, but there are also impacts at an organizational level. If you cannot get enough of the right people onto a project at the right time, then you start to get project delays.

Respondents believe the skills shortage has the potential to decrease efficiency (58%), reduce productivity (51%) and increase operating costs (50%). What is the industry doing to combat this, and which regions are most at risk?

Marx: A big thing we have seen is the industry making renewed efforts to get more students trained up and entering the market. There is a lot of recognition that there simply is not enough technical talent to go around, and firms are trying to get ahead of the problem. The other thing, which I am very pleased to see, is that there are more companies focusing on gender diversity.

Stuart: For us, technology is really important. We frame the problem in terms of ‘organizational memory,’ thinking about skills and the expertise that is leaking out of the industry and causing the skills crisis. Is there a way to capture and codify that, to put it into systems that can then automate tasks? That way you retain skills and experience. That is what we’re trying to achieve with [Lloyd’s Register’s] AllAssets software.

Moving on to regions most at risk though, to my mind it is actually the United States. If you are a young, technically minded person looking for a career path, you have this thriving and attractive technology economy that takes talent away from the energy sector.

Peet: I would echo that the U.S. is a region at risk. I would add two things: one, that the U.S.’ heavy restrictions on immigration make it difficult to bring in high-quality ex-pat talent, and two, the U.S. also struggles to attract enough blue-collar workers.

What can the industry as a whole do to help solve the skills gap—culturally and technologically—through education and diversity?

Marx: All of those things are vital. Get culture right, and you will be less exposed to the skills gap. Technologically, it is about embracing automation. The more you automate, the more efficient employees can be. In terms of diversity, it is about making sure that every company is set up in a way to accept, encourage and drive diversity. That comes down to the hiring processes.

Stuart: To my mind, culture and diversity are inseparable, as they both speak to the changing workforce. Diversity matters to the next generation of talent; it reflects the open, social, collaborative culture they want to work in. So you’ll get the right culture partly through diversity. But to get diversity, you need it to be part of the culture so that it comes naturally.

Education is, of course, important, but technology is what excites me the most. We are focusing on codifying subject matter experts’ expertise, so that it is not lost, using technology. This is the type of thing that will go a long way to mitigating the skills shortage—arguably more than anything else in the short term.

Peet: In terms of culture, it struck me that 30% of respondents think a more flexible culture will help attract and retain more staff. That’s not a majority, but it is significant. More respondents, though, cited training and career progression, 57% and 51%, respectively.

In the short term, it’s all about training; in the long term, we need to look at diversity. I don’t mean diversity shouldn’t be a priority now—it absolutely should. However, it will take time to build a diverse workforce and right now most of the existing talent is male, which cannot be ignored.

Finally, 81% of GETI respondents under 25 would enter the energy sector if they were starting their careers now. How do we market that optimism to the next generation?

Stuart: That is a hugely encouraging statistic, and it tells me that despite all of the very real problems we have discussed, we are doing something right as an industry.

That said, I think the area we need to focus on in marketing is the relevancy aspect. Look at BP, look at Statoil’s transformation to Equinor—they are pushing that relevancy story. But we still need to do better around the collaboration- and the community-driven idea that younger people want in their employers.

Marx: Those companies you mention are great examples of businesses that have tapped into the meaning behind what they are doing. People want to know what they do makes a difference. If we can market that to the next generation, people will want to join.

Peet: It is great to see such positivity in the under-25s, but we have to bear in mind that it is not mirrored by their older counterparts. That says to me we need to focus on maintaining the strong graduate pipeline, yes, but that those efforts perhaps have not been replicated for the older generation. Have we invested enough in retaining them? It is great to see the positivity for the future, but let’s not be complacent.

Check out the 2020 honorees of E&P's new Energy Innovators recognition program at hartenergy.com/energy-innovators