Addressing the Skills Gap in the Oil and Gas Industry

BP Thunder Horse Training Room: Two high-end computing classrooms, specifically designed to meet learning and delivery needs for courses. Each seat offers dual 24-inch monitors with the capability for instructors to switch the large-screen display to any workstation in the room. (Photo Courtesy BP )

The world of exploration and production has changed dramatically over the past ten years. There are few places where this is more evident than the U.S., where supply is predicted to continue expanding and eventually reach up to 2.2 million b/d from shale oil alone thanks to advances in drilling technologies which are unlocking additional resources. Yet with the International Energy Agency predicting that the demand for energy will grow by 40 percent by 2030 it has become more important than ever for the oil and gas industry to look to new frontiers in an attempt to increase production. However, to truly meet this ever-increasing need for energy the industry must adopt the same mindset when it comes to attracting, retaining and developing talent.

Attracting the right personnel, with the appropriate skill set, is a cross sector challenge which has received an unprecedented level of media coverage over recent years because graduates with science, technology, engineering and math skills have been selecting careers outside of the energy industry. As an industry we have traditionally been poor at engaging and educating tomorrow’s generation about the critical role we play in the world and the fantastic career opportunities we offer.  We need to get better at this and build advocacy as a sector. Yet while a great deal of talk and attention has been given to the need to recruit, it is also equally important to retain and maximize the capability of the existing workforce.

As Head of Upstream Human Resources, I have the responsibility of ensuring that our teams across the globe, including our more than 23,000 employees in the U.S., are continually learning and developing, both for the good of their careers and for the long-term success of the company.  Simply put, oil prices above $90 bbl alone will not deliver success; the industry needs to ensure that the global workforce is in a continual cycle of learning new skills and career development.  

Need for formal learning

We must not forget that while bringing new recruits and talent into the sector is of the utmost importance, the continual development of the sector’s employees is equally critical.  Huge investment is required to ensure our employees continually find, develop, extract and bring to market hydrocarbon resources in the most safe and efficient way.

At BP (NYSE:BP), development of staff is a key corporate objective and we now invest over $500 million each year in training and development.  We have created and implemented global flagship programs specifically for the development of new talent, including the Challenge Program, a global initiative for new graduate recruits in their first three years with the company.  The program maps out the first three years of an individual’s career and allows graduates to sample three different roles within the organization, providing consistent and structured learning throughout.  We have also taken advantage of the developments in IT over recent years and each Challenger now goes through a centrally managed induction learning event which uses virtual learning technology.  The result has been huge cost savings for the business and more centralized learning for our new staff. 

Additionally, we have recognized that the training of new talent needs to be extended beyond these three initial years and have developed and implemented the E&P eXcellence Program for our Upstream staff.  The program offers an additional seven years of training and learning that is both technical and functional, and aims to offer personal depth and increased operational capability while also ensuring that we are able to deliver responsible operations throughout the world. 

A uniform approach to learning and development is also required to ensure existing worldwide staff have a steady, reliable and consistent training and career development program.  The BP Upstream Learning Center in Houston is a flagship example of this approach.  The 65,000 square foot facility opened in March 2010 and is viewed within the industry as a model of future learning.  Made up of ten classrooms which are able to host more than 300 students, the center saw nearly 14,000 employees and wider industry employees pass through the doors in 2011.  Technology is central to the offering with life-sized simulators, 3-D visualization capability, dual image displays, video capture and conferencing capability and purpose built broadcast rooms to allow teachers to deliver learning solutions in the field.  The UpstreamLearningCenter is leading the industry and we are currently looking at building supplementary global centers.  

Need for field training

Training and development must occur inside and outside of the classroom. It is essential that professionals possess operational experience in addition to academic knowledge in order to transition into roles held by professionals with years of field experience and keep up with our industry’s rapidly evolving technology. Efforts like the previously mentioned Challenge Program and our Future Leaders Program rotate individuals through a number of aspects of the industryto provide exposure to real environments and technologies right from the start of their career. These experiences are important since they help build skills and technological understanding, and provide a firm foundation.

Need for mentoring and informal learning

While investment in employee learning and development is critical, formal programs alone are not a proven recipe for success. Informal learning, the passing on of knowledge to emerging talent and fostering a collaborative culture is of equal importance. We believe there is a need to develop as well as formally train our employees and this can only realistically be achieved through structured mentoring programs. 

BP is well known within the industry for having this collaborative culture and our graduates and new staff are appreciative of the level of time invested in them by team members and senior members of staff.  We are strong believers in the old fashioned term of “mentoring.”  All graduates and new employees are assigned a mentor and meet on a regular basis to discuss challenges that have been faced, both from the technical side and as part of the development of so called “soft skills.”  This type of mentoring program allows our professionals to build a network within the organization and draw upon the knowledge and advice of peers. 

Need for multi-company learning

By its very nature, the oil and gas industry has a history of being collaborative.  Our organizations partner on the overwhelming majority of global projects and we rely on and utilize a great number of service companies to ensure the global workforce remains mobile and adaptable to constant changes in their clients’ needs. 

Our industry does better than many others at facilitating and encouraging learning and development across multiple organizations, and industry bodies, such as the Offshore Petroleum Industry Training Organization, are becoming increasingly important in encouraging and facilitating multi company training programs.  That said, more could and should be done.  Increasing the skills and capability for the sector as a whole is without doubt a positive for the organizations operating within it.

What else can be done?

The industry as a whole has come a long way in recent years.  We have become better at formalizing, standardizing and collaborating in our attempts to train, teach and develop our current and emerging talent.  That said, improvements could certainly be made,and must be enacted as we continue to grow. 

In order to maximize capability across the entire sector there is a need to move towards standardized international learning and development practices.  At present learning and development, and even formal training, differs by company and by country.  Change cannot happen overnight, but I believe standardization should be a core area of focus for the industry over the next ten years.  All stakeholders have a role to play, from the international oil and gas companies such as BP, through to the regional and international industry trade bodies and societies.  The result can only mean an increase in safety, capability and operational efficiency.

Author Bio

Simon Drysdale is head of upstream human resources at BP and a member of the company’s upstream executive team, dividing his time between London and Houston. A HR professional with experience in both the mining and oil & gas industry, he joined BP in Cape Town 23 years ago as a labor relations director for Africa and has since held various HR leadership roles in South Africa, Aberdeen, London and the U.S.


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