The Connected Worker

Published
American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)

There are a few phrases that become standard fare for conference speakers and article writers like myself. One that you hear quite often is about the key elements of any technology project are “people, process and technology.” I usually like to add data to that mix but usually the star of the show is nearly always emerging technology. That is the sexy stuff. That is the fun topic that people like to talk about. No one disputes that the others are important, just that they are harder to discuss. Well once again I am going to take the path less travelled and talk about that subjects that get less attention. This time about the people.

The mantra “people are our most important resource” has gotten a little harder to say with a straight face after the recent layoffs. The workforce in the oil & gas industry, is going through some difficult times these days. I read recently that even in Texas, production has recovered and exceeded the highs of a few years ago, but that less than half of the jobs lost in the 2014-2017 downturn have been come back. Still you also read headlines that experienced drilling and completions crews are hard to find and the cost of finding a decent place to live in the Permian Basin is growing faster than salaries. I read about truck drivers making more than $100,000/year. That is three times more than a teacher in most schools.

Jobs in the industry are obviously impacted by the oil price. That is basic economics. They are also impacted by the decisions by management to grow too fast, to borrow too much, or to cut back too quickly in response to price cycles. Work in the industry is usually challenging and well paid, but don’t fool yourself, your career belongs to you. When the prices start to tank, you become a cost not an asset to your employer. Clearly the mantra going forward is doing more with less. More production with less of you. Operational Excellence means efficiency and productivity and not a lot of additional hiring.

Technology also impacts the workforce in challenging ways. There are a lot of articles talking about whether emerging technology, smart everything, automation, and robotics will take away the role of the human in many professions. Will a robot be able to do your job in the future? Some of these robot challengers are an algorithm or a predictive model. Even if a robot doesn’t take you job, the digital transformation will probably require that you learn new skills. There is a shift from manual and mechanical to the office and analytical. I even heard of one large oil & gas operator that now prefers hiring new entrants with an emphasis on analytics and less on engineering. They figure the easiest think to teach in the petroleum side while hiring for the programming and analytical attributes.

In the automotive industry, robots have become common, performing risky or repetitive tasks and improving the production line. By 2019, there will be approximately 2.6 million industrial robots in use worldwide, according to a 2016 report by the International Federation of Robotics. However, while the increased use of industrial robots has enhanced the precision and efficiency of manufacturing, it has also fueled a skills gap in the field. According to a study by Deloitte Consulting LLP and the Manufacturing Institute, there are an estimated 3.4 million jobs to be filled in manufacturing from 2015 to 2025 – and only approximately 1.4 million qualified workers to do so.

The Big Crew Change demographics challenge has now pretty much passed. White hair and 30-year service pins are hard to spot in industry meetings these days. That brings opportunity as well as challenges. Where are the mentors and experts? Didn’t we used to know how to do that? Disciplines that were only one deep in expertise are now finding they are starting over again to build knowledge.

So, what is in store for the future oil and gas workforce? You need to have better analytics skills. You need to be agile and innovative. (I saw a great Dilbert cartoon about a company with a slow and stupid strategy.) Your long-term career promise probably isn’t worth that much anymore. Your skills development is back on your shoulders (probably where it belongs) as the company will not invest in you if they don’t see the near-term payback. New technology wants to take some of your job and the mentors have long since gone off to retirement (or at least consulting).

The cool new job is a data scientist. But how is that working out? A recent IBM survey found that 70% of executives say their biggest challenge is a lack of visibility into everyday operations. But connecting assets and equipment to data analytics algorithms is not enough. According to research conducted by CrowdFlower, data scientists spend less than half their time actually analyzing data. The rest is the prep work, or data management: harvesting, organizing and consolidating data. This housekeeping is essential to success; the same research found that most data scientists see lack of quality data as the biggest barrier to successful artificial intelligence projects. See why I keep harping on data?

Your life has become digital through social media, smartphones, internet retail and other advances, why not your job? What you really need is a company version of:

  • Facebook to find network connections, to answer questions, and to collaborate and share work.
  • YouTube to go to for training and references when you want, not to schedule class room versions of training classes when the trainer wants.
  • Smartphone and tablet, preferably the latest version on the market. Forget your company PC, no one wants them anymore. This device will be more than a phone, it will be your work life. You want to take IT with you, so they are ready to work whenever and wherever you need to, but you want your life as well.
  • Twitter, because you want to stay in touch with your network wherever they are. Email is dead so don’t expect an answer to your voice mail or repeated attempts at sending them email, send a text instead.
  • Skype or FaceTime, when we meet virtually, which will be most meetings, why can’t they see you on their screen? Who wants to spend all day in boring meeting rooms with unclear agendas.
  • And most importantly, Google for your ‘get my data button’.

I don’t think emerging technology or near-sighted management are getting rid of all the humans in the industry for a while, so the future worker needs to adapt to this new environment. There will probably be fewer but higher skilled workers. I see a future with a “Connected Worker” paradigm. A long-term career (37 years in my case) maybe a thing of the past with greater career mobility. Maybe operators own less infrastructure but rent more as a as-a-service world takes over. We all know software-as-a-service and cloud computing, but what about compression-as-a-service, BoP-as-a-service, well surveillance and maintenance-as-a-service? Those new business models are out there.

The “Connected Worker” is an employee, or maybe a contractor in a short-term project assignment, who is connected to:

  • Data (beyond surveillance to situational awareness and discovery, probably with a very different user interface (voice, video, helmet cam (AR & VR))
  • Each Other (collaboration with a personal and professional network of resources)
  • And a Digital Platform (integration, automation, a knowledge and learning base)

The times they are a changing as one of my favorite Bob Dylan folk songs used to go. We emphasize the changes in technology, but maybe it is time to talk a little more about the changes that the people will need to adjust to. For some folks, this new world is very exciting, for some it is not their cup of tea.

The old saying about the 4 Ds of working for the oil industry (dumb, dirty, distant and dangerous) is not a slogan for the next generation. They won’t buy into that regardless of how much you offer as a starting salary. We are not ready yet for “robo-oilfield” so we better create an industry where bright, enthusiastic, passionate people still want to work in. It can’t all be about offering more money for opportunistic mercenaries. There has to be more about the attraction to the industry than that. So, are you working on that Google search engine, the digital academy and YouTube learning platform yet?

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