by Eve Sprunt

Recent college graduates hired as part of the big crew change don’t fully appreciate how much the business environment has changed. For them the recent oil boom is a large fraction of their lives. As students they heard about the huge challenges the oil industry faced in recruiting and training new employees. They were conditioned to ask potential employers about career paths, mentoring, benefits, and work-life balance. On the job, they received training that involved fun travel and personal mentors. Money flowed freely in the form of perks, raises, and promotions. In short, they have lived in a world in which their talent was in high demand.

The economic pendulum has now swung to the other extreme. The job market has shifted from one in which students had many choices to one in which employers can pick and choose from many applicants.

When oil price dropped in the 1980’s, I was as clueless as the big crew change group is now about how this type of shift impacted me as someone who was already employed. I had become accustomed to getting significant raises and promotions annually or sometimes even more often. Just before the oil price dropped, my employer, Mobil Oil, granted zero interest loans with the loan being forgiven if you continued to work for the company for three more years.

When I attended my first management course in the early 1980’s, the instructor explained that my generation had very different values from the preceding depression era generation. In particular, he said companies had to rethink how to manage employees, who didn’t value job security. He explained the motivational differences between the generations in the context of Maslow’s hierarchy of values. Abraham Maslow in his 1943 paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation,” described five levels of human needs starting with physiological, next safety, then love and belonging, then esteem, and finally at the top self-actualization. ('s_hierarchy_of_needs) Maslow’s concept was that people didn’t worry about the higher levels until their more fundamental needs were satisfied.

Employees, who had lived through the Great Depression, worried about keeping a roof over their heads and providing for their families. As a result of deprivation in their formative years, that generation wasn’t seeking esteem and self-actualization through their employment. Job security and retirement benefits were the big motivators for them.

In my early 1980’s class, the instructor, described baby boomers as being spoilt by growing up in relatively affluent times and therefore focused on esteem and self-actualization, because all of their more basic needs had always been met. What employers would have to do to motivate the baby boomers was described as being permanently different than for the depression generation, because early experiences were believed to have the greatest impact. Adult value systems were viewed as nearly immutable. The assumption was that baby boomers would always require different motivators than the preceding generation that addressed the esteem and self-actualization levels in Maslow’s hierarchy.

When oil price started dropping in the 1980’s, I wasn’t accustomed to paying attention to either the oil price or the company’s stock price. I was surprised when those prices started being posted daily at the front entrance of my work place. I didn’t understand why the same level of performance on my part, resulted in less reward in terms ratings, raises and promotions. The discussions focused on my performance, not on how what was happening to me reflected bigger changes in the industry. Top executives continued to talk about their concerns about industry demographics. The mixed signals were very confusing to me.

Layoffs, every couple of years created an atmosphere of fear. After my husband lost his job in another industry, I constantly worried about losing mine. Surviving two layoffs in which 50% of my work group was let go and many smaller ones left deep scars. I had a strong appreciation of job security. It was very high on my list of what I wanted from an employer. Traumatic experiences can alter adults’ values.

I didn’t give up on the higher needs, esteem and self-actualization. Since I no longer expected my employer to address those needs, I sought fulfillment in those areas from my involvement with the Society of Petroleum Engineers.

I’ve had a sense of déjà vu hearing the descriptions of the big crew change worker’s motivational needs. Now that oil price has dropped, we need to explain to them how that may affect their work environment. My generation, the baby boomers, speculates on potential downsizing and how it might impact them. Meanwhile, the big crew change group hasn’t really grasped that as a result of the reduction in industry activity, there is no longer a shortage of experienced oil industry professionals. They have been feed several years of rhetoric about how much the industry needs them. They selected their employers based on what the companies offered to do for them. They don’t have experience with how the change in the job market affects those who are still employed.

Part of our mentoring should be to advise the big crew change group on surviving an industry down turn. We should explain why they should no longer ask, “What can my company do for me?” We should coach them on survival skills that we have learned from the school of hard knocks. The question for the current economic environment is, “What can I do for my company?”

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