More than One Way to Close a Skills Gap

Oil and gas industry addresses needs through technical, soft-skills training

By William Atkinson Feb 14, 2014

There’s book learning and there’s on-the-job training, and when it comes to the subject of bridging the skills gap, the question of how much of each makes individuals employable is a confounding one. But it is becoming quite clear that a continuing combination of both is one of the best ways to ensure industry skill gaps are, if not eradicated, at least managed.

The American Gas Association (AGA) member companies meet frequently to discuss ways to build and maintain a properly skilled workforce. Based in Washington, D.C., the AGA is also a member of the Center for Energy Workforce Development (CEWD), a partnership of utilities, associations, contractors and unions that “studies the industry's employment issues through regular surveys and analysis and [that] takes a hands-on approach in helping reach the workers and develop solutions to the workforce shortage in the utility industry," explained Lori Traweek, AGA’s senior vice president and chief operating officer.

"Building the highly trained and talented workforce that is needed to support the energy future for our nation requires long-term sustained investment and cultivation at all levels,” said Traweek. “The process is a shared responsibility among employers, educators and employees that does not start or stop when a degree is earned or a contract is signed.”

Colleges and universities are essential to providing workers with necessary foundational skills and training, she said; however, “Employers must build on that foundation through continued development throughout an employee's career.”

Industry Snapshot

A December 2012 survey, sponsored by BP, of nearly 800 Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) members found that respondents believe that tomorrow's generation of workers require more development during their university years. Among the respondents, 47 percent were engineers and 25 percent were managers; 56 percent were responsible for staff training and development.

Overall, respondents said that while universities equip students either "quite well" or "very well" with industry knowledge (61 percent), technical skills (65 percent) and computer skills (72 percent), they come up short in providing future workers with other skills that are critical for success in the oil and gas industry.

"In terms of overall career development, softer skills were highlighted as being the most important skills for progression in an oil and gas career, according to the survey," said Don Shoultz, head of BP’s Houston -based Upstream learning and development for workers who find, develop, produce and transport oil and natural gas.

For example, respondents cited the ability to learn (69 percent), teamwork (61 percent), communication skills (60 percent) and work ethic (58 percent) as being "very important" for a successful career. By contrast, the survey found that technical skills (57 percent), analytical skills (53 percent) and computer skills (34 percent) were rated as important—but not the most important.

“Without a degree and relevant academic skills such as math, critical thinking, and science and technology, applicants may find it difficult to secure a job in the energy industry,” said Traweek. “However, backgrounds in math, science and technology are usually not enough. For example, there are many jobs that involve interacting with customers and our partners in government, building trades and other utilities. As such, applicants need to have qualities such as interpersonal skills, integrity and dependability"; thus, a foundation that includes writing skills and personal and public communication is also important.

Traweek added: "Communication, integrity and dependability are essential qualities necessary to building customer trust in face-to-face interactions, as well as to maintaining the strong safety culture needed to ensure worker safety. Developing these core personal attributes is a lifelong journey, requiring constant nurturing on the part of the employee, educators, families and employers. While employers should seek out candidates who possess and value these traits, it is incumbent on employers to build on that baseline, lead by example, and continually seek ways to encourage, uphold and enhance these values among their entire workforce.”

Blended Learning Approach to Competence

Traweek said the AGA has committed $1 million toward a scholarship program for students focused on fields related to energy and expects that more than 200 students in 26 U.S. community and technical colleges will receive scholarships over the next five years.

Along with technical and safety training, many of the AGA's member companies also offer employee development programs, which include educational assistance, online learning, leadership development, professionalism and public speaking.

The Oxford Princeton Programme is an international provider of education and training for the energy sector, offering classroom, customized onsite and Web-based courses (it provides more than 200 courses in 23 energy hubs worldwide).

"The educational system should provide graduates with the ability to transfer book smarts into industry smarts, teaching them not just skills but the knowledge of how to identify where they need to grow on an ongoing basis in order to be competitive in the industry," said Clara Lippert Glenn, president and CEO of The Oxford Princeton Programme. "Given that energy is an ever-evolving industry, knowledge and skills training needs to be provided not just to new hires but also be an ongoing process."

BP has created and implemented programs specifically to develop new talent, as well. One of these is the Challenge Program, a global initiative, begun in 1993, for new-graduate recruits.

"The program maps out the first three years of an individual's career and allows graduates to sample three different roles within the organization, providing consistent and structured learning throughout," Shoultz explained.

The rotational development programs, typically lasting 18 to 36 months, “place employees in the best position to succeed by showing them how everything works at BP,” he said. “Their training covers technical competencies, communications, team building and other skills that they will use throughout their careers. When they finish, they have the opportunity to define a career path that is best suited for who they are and who they want to be.”

The Challenge Program, which has approximately 1,400 students currently, has had about 3,500 graduates to date.

"The result has been a huge cost savings for the business and more centralized learning for our new staff," Shoultz said.

Continuing Development

Recognizing that training for new employees needs to go beyond the initial three years, BP created an eXcellence Programme, which offers seven more years of training.

“After completing this program, employees will have built functional depth in their fields and can then choose to develop their expertise in specialist areas, including the possibility of becoming project and field managers or technology leaders,” Shoultz said.

He added, however, that formal programs alone are not a proven recipe for success.

"Informal learning, the passing on of knowledge to emerging talent and fostering a collaborative culture are of equal importance,” he said.

To augment this process, BP relies on mentoring programs.

All graduates and new employees are assigned a mentor with whom they meet regularly to discuss challenges, both from the technical side and as part of the development of soft skills. “This type of mentoring allows our professionals to build a network within the organization and draw upon the knowledge and advice of peers."

Finally, Shoultz said the industry-education partnership must be stronger in order to meet both students’ and industry’s needs.

"Our industry needs to be transparent about what we need from college graduates and what we have to offer," said Shoultz. "The expectations of higher education are becoming increasingly demanding, with students looking to universities not just for a degree but also for a career path. It is that partnership between industry and the academic community that would create awareness and opportunity from an employment standpoint.”

Bill Atkinson is a freelance writer based in Carterville, Ill.


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