Whether the skills gap in engineering I’ve been hearing about for two decades now is real or not is a matter of opinion. I don’t think a lack of qualified engineers is the biggest recruitment issue facing the oil and gas industry. The issue is that there’s a huge perception gap.
Let’s face it: The oil and gas industry doesn’t have a terribly good reputation among students and young people. This is largely because of what they hear in the media, opinions that in my view are chiefly fostered by ignorance and misrepresentation.
The perception is that oil and gas is a dirty industry and that we can do without both forms of fuel. This is entirely wrong, and most people don’t understand the nature of the problem. The world’s energy needs are increasing. Renewable energy generation is too unreliable at present to provide a complete substitute for fossil fuels. Oil and gas remain a vital part of the energy mix, and if we don’t get the balance right, the lights will go out.
If you’re an engineer working in the oil and gas industry, you’re trying to find answers to global issues in order to solve some of the most complex challenges. How do you meet the world’s energy demands while cutting carbon emissions and minimizing environmental impact? It’s a job that can provide a compelling challenge and very satisfying career for intelligent and motivated engineers.
But when engineering students do choose a career in the oil and gas industry, it’s more by accident than design. This is born out by the number of my students that take this route—in any given year, it’s less than five percent. At least half of them go into the financial sector (because they are numerate and it pays well), lots go into consultancy and service industry jobs, some go into teaching and accountancy, and many more into general engineering.
Fixing the Recruitment Problem
So what can be done to attract more engineers into the oil and gas industry? It’s not an easy job and there’s no overnight fix. But there are a few things I think the industry can do to make it a more attractive proposition.
First, the leaders of oil and gas organizations need to start entering into public debates about the role of oil and gas in keeping the lights on. Frankly, there aren’t enough of them out there banging the drum for a realistic, practical approach to fulfilling the world’s energy needs. Like any other profession, engineers need role models. But, unlike other industries, you only tend to hear from leaders in this sector when there’s a disaster.
Second, getting good information about what is involved in a career in the oil and gas industry is not easy. Engineering students need easy-to-access information about what is really involved, whether that’s through direct engagement on campus, informing university careers teams, or ensuring their career websites are appealing and helpful for entry-level candidates.
Third, attracting more women into engineering roles in the industry is key—it is a very male dominated field. According to the Royal Academy of Engineering in the U.K., women make up 51 percent of the U.K. population but only 8 percent of the engineering workforce. There are lots of women out there that would love a job in engineering, but they need to know that they will have the chance to work on complex and interesting challenges and that they will be able to balance this with family life (as do men, for that matter). Glossy brochures with pictures of women in hard hats standing on oil rigs don’t even start to address these issues.
Fourth, oil and gas organizations need to widen their recruitment nets. Many use recruitment companies to do the initial weeding of candidates for them. I feel they throw a lot of talent away at this stage. They should be more open to talking directly to students that don’t fit their initial criteria, or they could be missing out on hiring people with real potential.
Large oil and gas companies have a real opportunity to begin to address the perception gap today, before it’s too late. It’s not going to be easy, but if they don’t, they will continue to lose the best engineering talent to other industries.
Shaun Crofton is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Imperial College London.