Aberdeen, Scotland, historically has been called the Granite City, but since the discovery of oil in the late 1970s it also has been called the “Energy Capital of Europe.”
In fact, this city of approximately 200,000 residents – about the same as Lubbock, Texas – boasts the world’s second largest geosciences community (next to Houston, which has 15 times the population).
With such a concentrated reservoir, if you will, of talent and experience, Aberdeen is a good place to consider the challenges the profession is facing – or, more to the point, the problems it will face.
And that’s the theory behind exploHUB, a new training and research center currently being set up at the University of Aberdeen.
Its mission, according to AAPG member Stuart Archer, its director, is “to provide a unique training environment that will provide an accelerated exploration geoscience training program to meet the challenge of discovering the Earth’s remaining hydrocarbon resources.”
The rationale, Archer says, came about because:
The perceived lack of regional-scale play fairway analysis skills.
Something needs to be done to help fill the rapidly approaching loss of experienced explorationists.
That second point may be more important, for many in the industry are predicting the "Great Crew Change," which will be the mass exodus of seasoned geologic professionals in the next decade due to retirement.
Where their replacements will come from and how trained they will be are two areas that exploHub will address.
A Complex Challenge
Archer says the solution to the dilemma will be more difficult than simply increasing the industry’s presence at job fairs and recruitment drives.
“It’s a more complex issue than just trying to re-fill the hopper,” he said. “There has always been an ongoing crew change – we have been losing good experienced hands to retirement ever since the E&P industry began. It’s all about the scale and geographic extent of this particular demographic anomaly.
“Before we talk about potential solutions, one should first consider the scale of the problem,” he continued. “Is it a global phenomenon? Is it restricted to ‘western’ companies and societies? Is the problem restricted to E&P companies? etc. Consider this, if our skills pool is truly global then local centers perhaps need not worry?”
Fellow AAPG member Andrew Hurst, professor of production geoscience of Aberdeen, agrees, wondering if the “crew change” is due, in part, to the industry emphasizing the wrong kinds of jobs.
Calling it a “self-created” situation, Hurst says one of the problems is there are too few geoscientists in the mid-range demographic profile.
“An alternative is to change their focus and to bring on the younger talent. It is relevant experience not simply experience that is surely important?
“It surprises me that many oil companies are not planning to hire graduates, or hire less graduates, this coming year – sort of shooting one’s self in the foot perhaps – certainly sending out the wrong signal to graduates/potential employees!”
Archer says the number of geoscientists that will be needed may not be as important as the kinds that will be required.
“Major uncertainty exists as we move toward low-carbon based economies,” he said. “Will there be the need for the same number of geoscientists in tomorrow’s world? Some would argue that even if there is still substantial work to be done in the unconventional and sequestration sectors, it could be achieved with less staff if modern technology can speed up workflows and reduce interpretation time.
“The ‘wise words’ regarding technology,” he quickly adds, “are usually that new technology requires a larger and more-skilled work force!”
Which is not to say the problem is not – or may not become – severe.
“If, after some deeper analysis, we conclude that the crew change is a global problem of sufficient magnitude to affect the vital operations of the global energy industry and threaten short- to medium-term energy demands, then we must search for appropriate solutions,” he said, “and quickly.”
Archer believes some aspects of the industry will be able to handle part of the change – but that’s not the entire story.
“Oil companies may have to manage the ‘crew change,’ but one should remember that although the demographic peaks and troughs are a function of the prior and current actions of oil companies, those companies may not be the only environment where solutions can be found.”
And that, he says, is where exploHub and the University of Aberdeen can be a valuable resource.
“Surely, this is an issue with which academia can engage by helping the E&P industry cope with a high turnover of staff. ExploHUB is designed to address the problem of the crew change by managing the necessary skills transfer through training in the fundamentals of exploration practice and methods.”
Participants in the program will not be exposed to your parent’s geology classes.
“The exploHUB training initiative is a step beyond learning,” Archer said. “ExploHUB is training – not classroom-based education – and in this way differs markedly from short courses. ExploHUB operates and feels like a dedicated exploration team in an oil company rather than a classroom. We ‘learn by doing’ rather than ‘chalk and talk’ or ‘death by PowerPoint.’”
The hope is that in this type of immersive training environment, two to three years of industry based learning can be distilled into nine months. The program also will include longer and shorter modules.
The program also will allow trainees to generate play and prospect portfolios as a byproduct of the training. In turn, all information regarding plays and prospects will be fed back to the investing companies – those that have sent their workers – on a regular basis via a prospect fair and short report.
Archer hopes this transfer will stimulate activity on the UK continental shelf, where the program will initially focus.
(“We envisage exploHUB exploring further afield once the program is established,” he added.)
Calling exploHub a “gathering place” for explorers in general, Archer hopes the program will nurture those qualities of inquisitiveness that make-up the mind of an exploration geologist. Most exploHUB trainees, he says, will have had some experience of the industry, but it’s not a requirement; he thinks some will come from undergraduate and postgraduate programs.
“This diversity will be valued in the same way that a blend of expertise and contribution style is recognized as valuable in industrial teams.”
The program, which has been endorsed by the AAPG Executive Committee; will begin this coming September, and Archer says it was a challenge to begin the program during “the worst economic crisis since the 1930s,” and will include those from national oil companies, technology, the geosciences and other exploration and development companies.
The literal and figurative goal, he says, is what it’s always been … since the last great Crew Change.
“To ensure that the next generation will leave no stone unturned.”