Jobs for the World’s Future Oil Finders

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

A common theme emerged recently in the course of talking to groups of enthusiastic and energetic AAPG student members at Imperial College, Aberdeen University, and the Imperial Barrel Award competition in Bahrain: “We’re graduating soon. Will there be jobs in the industry for us?” This concern derives from the uncomfortable contrast between the last few years when most graduating students had been snapped up quickly, and hiring this year, which has been slow due to the economic downturn.

Although it’s not an immediate comfort to this year’s graduating student, several converging trends demand that inevitably there will be jobs. Population growth, per capita oil consumption, the remaining global oil resources, and the average age of geologists now in the industry will intersect to make things “interesting,” and to provide opportunities for new graduates, probably sooner than later.

  • Global predictions show the world’s population is growing exponentially, which will drive up the demand for energy because, as Bobby Ryan, chair of the AAPG Corporate Advisory Board notes in his lectures, “They’re all going to be energy consumers.” The problems created by the world’s mushrooming population will probably be more important, immediate, and intractable than any worries about climate change, but that’s another discussion.
  • Take any expert’s projected global oil-consumption curve, and while they differ in detail they all agree that consumption will increase as long as there’s production capacity to support it. U.S. demand may have diminished slightly in the last year but this decrease is temporary, and globally demand has essentially diminished only in its rate of increase. Not only is each new person going to be an energy consumer, there will also be an increasing per capita demand for energy.
  • Now take any estimate you care to use for the world’s fossil-energy reserves. Even if you double the largest estimate it’s still finite, and alternative energy sources are still in their infancy. Geologists will be needed to locate the increasingly small and difficult-to-find hydrocarbon reservoirs.
  • Finally, use any of the demographic measures of the present age distribution for geologists in the work force; they all show a large population of gray-haired geologists nearing retirement.

Job openings for geologists are inevitable because the demand for fossil fuel can only increase in the next few decades, and because the pool of geologists is diminishing.

Unfortunately the job opportunities needed by students and which will ultimately benefit the industry itself are not in evidence at the moment. The oil and gas industry is driven by the economy and by near-term financial returns, and today’s short-term outlook doesn’t support employing large groups of geoscientists. Most companies do not employ geologists unless they plan to keep them very busy, even at the risk of not having enough geologists when the next active cycle occurs.

But the industry’s own long-term health should also be a concern to that industry, and even though, as noted by AAPG European Region president Dave Cook, computerization has made geologists individually more productive*, long-term industry health requires a stable, experienced work force, and experience is not acquired overnight or in a classroom. New hires typically have excellent computer skills; what they need in order to become skilled oil finders is experience with the realities and complexities of geology.

Experience is more valuable in this profession than it is in many others. Our science is an amorphous, non-linear science that uses incomplete data sets and that operates in part by analogy, in part by theory, in part by accumulated knowledge of the geological intricacies of a region, and in part by educated hunch. The more experience one accumulates over the years the more successful one can be at finding oil. Computers are important, but we still need the basic understanding, insights, and experience that allow critical assessments of the models provided by computers.

Building experience by trial and error is considerably less efficient than learning from mentors, thus a work force unbroken by age gaps has significant value to the industry. Once the string is broken it takes a long time to rebuild it: experienced geologists are built slowly, year by year, from young geologists. Oil and gas are still being found in mature regions like southern Oklahoma by geologists such as recent AAPG awardee Bob Allen. Bob is as enthusiastic a geologist as any I’ve ever met, and at age 87 he continues to use insights from his 60 years of experience with the complex geology of the area to drill successful new wells.

One doesn’t create experienced geologists simply by providing training no matter how good the training is. Training is important and there are numerous fine training programs available from AAPG, companies, and universities, but training is for the currently employed. We also talk earnestly of attracting folks to geology at the high school level, and while both tactics are good they solve a totally different problem. Both are superfluous if there are no jobs.

I am confident the jobs will be there before long because of the realities of population growth, energy demand, and energy supply, and because of the industry’s own self interests. Students: Be optimistic, but be patient and persistent. Face-to-face networking is crucial, so get to meetings, give talks, and make a point of meeting potential employers. Posting resumes online is important but it isn’t enough. AAPG offers a variety of student and regular programs that help get you started. Employers: Look to the longer-term future and start building tomorrow’s work force of experienced geologists with jobs today.

*See also the study compiled by AAPG Vice President Don Lewis in 2001, which shows the increasing ratio of barrels of oil found per AAPG member.

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