By Shanti Terry
As the workforce for the oil and gas industry change and adapt over time, employers for the industry are finding that they too have to evolve. According to the experts interviewed for this second look into why today is not your grandfather’s oilfield, some things have stayed the same, but most are different. Technology has brought about the most change concerning expectations employers have for employees as well as training changes that are necessary to mold workers into experienced, and valuable, working members of the O&G workforce.
Technology Changes Everything
The rise of technology has had many pros and cons, particularly concerning the O&G workforce and the jobs they perform. Technology is a reason for some to shout for joy, and for others to hang their heads. For example, it’s a positive that jobs can be done more efficiently and faster with tools and other options now available to everyone. However, that appreciation of technology, efficiency, and speed means change, and change can come at a cost for some. It costs anyone who finds him or herself uninformed of technology and its requirements.
“The world of work itself is changing. There used to be a place for those individuals who didn’t want to go to college or even finish high school, but not anymore. The jobs that are available in these [extractive] industries have changed,” says Elaine Cullen.
As a former researcher for the U.S. Department of Mines, Cullen has over 45 years of experience in research pertaining to extractive industries. Weighing in on this second part of our series, Cullen went on to explain that jobs are no longer performed the way they were “back in the day,” because of the knowledge of technology that’s necessary. “A driller very often now sits inside an enclosed compartment and runs the drill with a computer and a joystick. They’re not standing out on the rig floor anymore. You have to know how to run the computers and the equipment that’s run with computers.”
Although technology has changed the jobs, employers are still looking for the same qualities in individuals that they were many years ago. Dr. Bill Price, dean of the College of Business at University of Texas of the Permian Basin, shared that, “As an HR professional, when I used to hire people, my greatest concerns were whether or not they would be productive and fit into the company’s culture. I was concerned with their being honest or dishonest. Those are the things I used to worry about and today, it’s the same thing.”
Dr. Price’s experience and knowledge come from his many years of working in human resources, during which time he’s served as a member of the Permian Basin SHRM (Society for Human Resources Management) for 12 years.
Indeed, honesty and productivity are two very important attributes that employers look for in a new hire. According to Teresa Fairbrook, vice president of human resources at Pioneer Natural Resources for 19 years, another desirable attribute brought on by technological advances concerning the workforce is reliability.
“With the mobility that technology offers, we have to make sure that we have reliable people. You don’t always come in to an office to do work. We have to have people willing to work and put in the time and effort needed to do the job.”
In your grandfather’s oilfield, experience was worth its weight in gold. Although experience will always be extremely valuable, changes in the workforce have prompted employers to create extensive training programs to counter a lack of experience in the ever-changing workforce of today. For those companies that invest in the time needed to develop great training, the step serves to widen the pool of eligible candidates like never before. Fairbrook explained: “We don’t have an expectation of a lot of experience for entry-level employees. There’s a rotational program that we put employees through to give them that experience. Now, yesterday you worked at Wal-Mart and had never worked in the O&G industry before, and today you work at Pioneer and we’re going to put you through these programs to teach you the basics of field or office work.”
As far as the reason behind the lack of experience in the younger segment of the workforce, those being groomed to take over in the future, Cullen offered an explanation of her own. “Before, if you asked people in the workforce how they got into their work, many of them would tell you that their parents were in that line of work and they started young by observing and working with them. That isn’t [always] the case today.”
Cullen went on to say that, as a culture, we don’t let young kids work. As a result, they don’t have that background by the time they get to an age where they can work. She stated, “Even though the newer generations can go and look things up, there are things that simulations and basic information just don’t cover. Wisdom comes from making mistakes and learning from them.”
Training, Training, Training
When it comes to the process of implementing the requisite programs, a common need cited by our experts was the notion that, no matter the size of the company, training is imperative.
Cullen, referring to Schlumberger, remarked on an experience she had some time ago in Midland, Texas. “About a year ago, I had the opportunity to observe one of their classes. They’re a big company and they have full-time trainers. They do an excellent job. Still, smaller companies may not have the same access. They may not be able to hire full staff trainers. However, there are a lot of people out there who do training on a contract basis.”
Given her statement, one can deduce that smaller companies are not in the clear if they skip training on the excuse that their size makes it unaffordable. Cullen went on to say that she feels that although training (safety training) for workers in the O&G industry is not yet mandated, good companies will prioritize setting a system in place.
As mentioned earlier by Fairbrook, training at Pioneer starts from the ground up. The company has entry-level, intermediate, and advanced training programs in place to get workers where they need to be. Fairbrook mentioned that it took a great deal of work. A special staff had to be built that could maintain training programs to ensure that they remain consistent, with safety as a priority. The creation of the training staff and the programs they oversee has paid off in a big way. Said Fairbrook: “Putting these training programs in place was a massive effort. For field training, we had to work at getting standard operating procedures out to all the assets. Initially, it was not that way. Individuals did things in accordance with whoever trained them and the way that they learned it. Now we have standards across the organization.”
As the changing workforce has stirred employers to beef up their training protocol, so has it stirred them to take good look at finding ways to increase their employee retention. Turnover rates can turn ugly if companies don’t work to fix the issue as soon as it presents itself. Cost and competition are two main hurdles that companies have to jump in order to begin resolving the matter.
According to Cullen, there is a cost to losing both new and older, more experienced employees. For different reasons, both can set a company back immensely. As for the question of retention of new employees, Cullen asked how much time and energy can be wasted when an employee leaves after having been with a company for only a couple of years. “Companies provide them with opportunities and pair them with more experienced workers, and they gain job experience and knowledge. When they leave, companies have to start all over again. There is a cost to starting the process all over again with a new individual.”
Be it financial loss, or the loss of projects and work that can’t be done without specialized staff, losing seasoned employees is a major problem. Fairbrook stated that once individuals do get three to five years of experience under their belt, they become hot commodities.
In Cullen’s opinion, time and patience are the two things required when seeking out replacements for experienced staff. “The higher individuals are up in a company and the more skilled that they are, the harder they will be to replace. If you’re looking for an individual with a particular set of skills, it will take longer to find someone with that skill set that’s willing to come and work for you.”
Fierce competition from competitors concerning provisions for work flexibility, desirable locations, and pay are all things that Pioneer deals with on a regular basis. According to Fairbrook, the company has not suffered from high turnover rates, and that has been due to their work culture, which keeps people around. “That’s not to say we don’t have any exposure,” said Fairbrook. “We are competing for talent with those who have programs that offer a lot of flexibility in place. We don’t have our programs for that fully implemented yet. With recruiting, we’re competing with bigger companies that have more desirable work locations, and we also have to compete with small companies that will pay whatever it takes. Some of them don’t have compensation systems in place.”
Diversity in the workforce is another significant tide that has risen for employers. In your grandfather’s oilfield, there were mostly men, the age gaps between workers weren’t as large, and there weren’t as many cultural differences. “It used to be that these extractive industries were 100 percent male and largely Caucasian,” said Cullen. “When I entered the workforce, there weren’t many women, and it was against the law for women to work underground in this country. That law didn’t change until the late 1970s. Laws about women have changed and are still changing. Generational diversity is changing in terms of what people expect and what they can bring to the workforce.”
Today, men and women from all different walks of life come together in a workforce melting pot, which means changes for the way that employers facilitate healthy work cultures and functional teams. Fairbrook shared with us a bit about the training programs that Pioneer has underway to maintain a healthy workplace for employees. “Concerning age differences and other diversities, we’re working on training that will explore stereotypes. That hits many different categories. Often, it just takes having a conversation about the obvious. We want to have it there to discuss some differences that come with age, gender, and culture.”
Addressing generational gaps specifically, Fairbrook said mentoring can be a great way to help the younger and older generations of the workforce today to merge. “With the different generations trying to work together, there are some judgments that are likely passed on one another. Not a lot is said, but there is a lot of thinking.”
Fairbrook went on to say that she witnessed the impact that mentoring could have as Pioneer launched an extremely successful pilot mentoring program last year. “It was powerful. The feedback we received proved that both the mentors and mentees benefitted from the relationships. A 65-year-old that’s been through the program is going to think differently about the next 25-year-old they work with after the program and vice versa.”
It seems mentoring will certainly help to develop and groom those younger members of the workforce who will be leaders tomorrow and into the future. According to Cullen, special training will need to be given to certain individuals to ensure that the journey into the future is a prosperous one. “The people that are the key to moving us successfully into the future are the first-time supervisors. They’re in charge of running a work crew and seeing that people do their jobs correctly with proper productivity. They must be shown how to run a successful work team when everyone on the team is very different. Leadership training with emphasis on communication skills is crucial.”
A glance towards the future will take us into our third and final installment of this series, as we delve into what lies ahead as a result of the changes in the O&G workforce of today.
Shanti Terry is a regular contributor to Permian Basin Oil and Gas. Her article on Cyber Security appears elsewhere in this issue.