May 2022 /// Vol 343 No. 5)

Columns

Drilling advances: Shiny toys not enough

Evelyn MacLean, workforce energy task force director of the UK-based International Association of Oil and Gas Producers, says it’s time technology advancements are coupled with a re-examination of the workforce relationship.

Jim Redden

Talent recruiters believe splashy drilling automation and digital technologies would be sufficient to entice tech-savvy newbies, if only the industry’s pesky reputation didn’t keep getting in the way. Citing the industry’s “declining popularity among some of the upcoming generations,” Evelyn MacLean, workforce energy task force director of the UK-based International Association of Oil and Gas Producers (IOGP), says it’s time technology advancements are coupled with a re-examination of the workforce relationship. 

“While you’re getting excited and immersed in all aspects of the science and the bits and bytes associated with that, think about the attention you’re paying to the human element,” she said. “All the innovations we’ve made in drilling to automate and digitize will be constrained and curtailed, if we don’t secure the workforce needed, and if we don’t retain the talent we have by investing in up-skilling and re-skilling so they remain relevant.” 

It’s no secret that a history of widespread cyclical layoffs and a reputation as a “dirty industry” among younger and more socially conscious candidates makes it difficult for the industry to attract talent and retain those currently onboard. “With the ESG (environmental, societal and government) challenges, fueled by social media, the popularity within our industry is not what it once was,” said Willie Thompson, Hess senior manager of early career engineering. 

Thompson and MacLean joined contractor and service company representatives on March 30 to examine the “Drilling Workforce of the Future” during a hybrid IADC Drilling Engineering Committee (DEC) technical forum in Houston. They agree that one thing is certain: the demographics comprising today’s rig site are moving beyond the historically rigid top-down hierarchy, into what Halliburton Technology Fellow Robello Samuel describes as “the great crew reshuffling.” 

Crowded pool. Compounding the headwinds, nearly every U.S. business sector has been touched by the so-called Great Resignation phenomenon that since early 2021 has seen disgruntled and pandemic-weary workers quitting en masse. MacLean said a Forbes analysis illustrates the competition companies face when trying to attract tech talent. “The U.S. has over four-times more vacancies in AI (artificial intelligence) and machine learning jobs than India. We also have the largest crew of data scientists, yet we have the most vacancies. There is a lot of people fishing in the same pool for talent,” she said 

MacLean leads an industry-wide task force established by the IOGP in 2020 to develop the multifarious workforces of the future. “We set ourselves a target that by 2025, we would be a more diverse and inclusive energy workforce, allowing people to apply their capabilities to help accelerate the energy transition. Don’t just assume you’re optimizing their capabilities. Talk to them, hear them and understand what they want to do and where they might fit.” 

Changing from the traditional culture, she says, starts with looking at the policies dictated by Human Resources organizations. “Does your company have a vast workforce strategy and not one in a vacuum from HR? When creating policies, keep it brief. Think about the absolutes and what is critical for you to make money and run a safe business, and from there you have opportunities to flex,” she said.  

Changing roles. Tech-heavy drilling contractor Nabors Industries Ltd. agrees. “To prepare a workforce to meet future needs, we need HR policies that emphasize retention of talent and identify recruitment of qualified workers,” says Brett Schellenberg, director of controls and automation.  

Nabors, for its part, has engineered a technical organizational structure that marries remote operations with onsite rig controls. That brings with it a wholesale makeover of traditional wellsite roles, highlighted by the driller, who no longer executes directions handed down by the company representative. Instead, the driller functions more like a project manager. 

“The first thing we had to do was break up some of the silos that had existed in our organization. Historically, we had a group of software engineers that focused on software and edge development. We had a group of engineers that focused on controls and automation, and we had groups that focused on products, and rarely would all these teams collaborate,” he said. “Now, it’s not uncommon for a back-end developer to be asking a SME how he wants to orient tool face. We have operations and products folks (working together) to understand what technologies we want to exploit to better solve problems. So, what we want to do is create a diverse set of people.” 

New pipelines. The emphasis on diversity extends to operators. “Beyond the core engineering skills we traditionally recruit, we seek additional related attributes that steer us beyond the traditional recruiting grounds,” says Thompson. “Obviously, IT will play a key role, as we continue to look at data acquisition and utilizing statistical analysis to make decisions going forward.“ 

Halliburton’s Samuel says workforce competencies must, indeed, change in the face of technology advancements and a contemporary environment highlighted by ESG and cost pressures. “Tomorrow’s drilling workforce will need the construct of both abstract and experiential learning, not only in formulating the problems but also solving them. In alignment with the industry, the talent pipeline from the educational system has to be in lockstep pace.” 

To that end, MacLean said recruiters would be well-served to look beyond traditional oilfield talent pipelines like Texas A&M, Colorado School of Mines, the University of Texas and Louisiana State University. “There are likely to be some gems elsewhere, who may be eager to be a part of our journey,” she said.  

The Authors ///

Jim Redden Jim Redden, a Houston-based consultant and a journalism graduate of Marshall University, has more than 40 years of experience as a writer, editor and corporate communicator, primarily on the upstream oil and gas industry.

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