Feeling the winds of change

 By Chris Dalby

From northern Scotland to Texas, working on the oilfields was a sure way for young men to make good money, albeit in potentially strenuous conditions. However, with the world progressively moving away from fossil fuels, with renewable energy sources becoming ever more prevalent, and with oil prices’ current lows, this career path is becoming less attractive. Actually many of the engineering and technical skills needed in the renewables sector overlap, providing a potentially smooth transition for petroleum engineers and when these curious professionals seek to make this transition, they find precious little help available…

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Aberdeen. Calgary. Even Williston, a nondescript town in North Dakota, nestled between the Montana and Canada borders. All three share one thing in common, places where enterprising folk can make money in exchange for a few months’ hard labor on the oilfields. Until the bottom fell out of the market.

In February 2014, prices stood at $103.60 dollars a barrel. By February 2016, they stood at $31.32 dollars a barrel. The human cost of this plummet is all too real. Over 30,000 natural resources workers were fired in Alberta last year. In 2012, Aberdeen was named one of the happiest places to live in the UK. Now, its economy is tanking with over 1,200 oil jobs lost in the first half of 2015. In January, BP announced it would slash 25 percent of all its North Sea staff, or approximately 600 people based in Scotland. This leaves thousands of trained and experienced personnel adrift with few ideas as to where to turn. While the oil industry has always been cyclical, layoffs were often seen as temporary. Workers could quite easily find contracting work to tide themselves over before the big players began hiring again. This time, it may not be so easy.

Patricia, a Brazilian chemical engineer in Houston, said that she was working for a boutique chemicals firm after being let go from a refinery in early 2015 as prices tanked. “It took me months to find work. I would much rather be working in the oil industry.”

One sector that has caught the eye of many oil workers is the renewable energy sector. According to Adriaan Kamp, a Dutch consultant on the global energy industry, this transition should not be problematic. “In terms of skills, transitioning from old to new energy sectors should be comparatively straightforward,” he told the Guardian last year. “Managing a wind farm or solar project is nothing a good oil and gas man who has built or organized facilities cannot manage,” he says.

Matt Hall, a supply chain specialist in Alberta, adds that governments however have not set up the right framework for such changes to happen.

“Alberta is still in transition. The new government just came out with their royalties review and kept rates the same, but offer new incentives on any new methane or propane by product plastic and textile plants in Alberta. That is not exactly good for renewables but it is one action taken to offset the pain.”

Jobs in Renewable energy

Some companies such as Siemens are beginning to see this as a real option, offering graduate and training programs for those professionals seeking to enter or switch to the renewable industry. However, this seemingly obvious career path does not yet seem to have caught on in the broader market as almost no major oil and gas companies appear to have such training programs on their books. It is tempting to say that the oil and gas industry, usually keen to stay ahead of potential crises, may have been wrong-footed by the rapid need to fire so many of its workers.

In early 2014, an oil and gas HR survey of 154 oil companies by the Mercer consultancy found that bringing on more talent was a key priority. One year later, during another survey, one-third of respondents were reducing hiring efforts while many others were freezing or lowering pay, if not letting people go outright.

While not all oil companies have interests in the renewables sector, for those that do, it still seems a wasted opportunity to let people go instead of retraining them. This is a case where the oil industry may have been set in its ways. The hiring and firing habits of cycles past may be hard to break. However, the prolonged nature of this particular crisis means that oil workers can no longer afford to wait around. Prices do not seem to be picking up and the renewable industry is hiring.

In 2014, over 7.7 million jobs were created in the renewable industry worldwide, including 724,000 in the US. This trend looks to be continuing steadily and many workers are too tired or too broke to wait any longer.

Mexico has shown signs of progress in this field. According to Wallace Porter, senior editor of the Mexico Energy and Sustainability Review, scientists from the Center of Scientific Investigation and Superior Education (CICESE) in Ensenada are hoping to help oil workers make the jump.

“A project led by CICESE is seeking to build coastal wind farms before moving on to offshore wind farms. The idea is to use former Pemex employees with experience in offshore engineering to build and operate the offshore wind turbines,” says Porter.

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However, another factor may come to cloud the rosy scenario of workers leaving hydrocarbons behind to work on wind farms or solar plants. The attachment of oil workers to their industry is well-known and some companies are wary of that. Patricia, the chemical engineer from Brazil, refused to provide her full name due to a lasting desire to return to the oil industry.

Canada’s Financial Post reports that a number of companies are reticent to hire oil workers due to fears of them returning to their old stomping grounds once oil prices rise again.

Michel Cuvillier, a geologist completing his Master’s degree at the College of Charleston before looking to enter the oil industry, retains an abiding passion for black gold and believes that its companies are well-positioned to lead the energy transition.

“Despite the fact that our society is moving away from hydrocarbons as a fuel source, the oil industry will continue to thrive due to the fact that thousands of other products such as electronics, chemicals and medicines are oil based,” says Cuvillier.

Furthermore, he states that, despite recent mass layoffs, the loyalty of oil workers to their industry can be difficult to break.

“I do not know of any oil workers actively looking to transition to renewables,” says Cuvillier. “People that work for the oil industry tend to marry the companies they work for because there are great growth opportunities.”

This positive stance is fairly typical of that encountered among several young graduates spoken to for this article. Despite the problems facing their older peers, the feeling among them is that the transition from one energy source to another will take its time and that, once prices go up, they will still have a promising career in the oil industry.

MUST READ: The bridge to post oil future? by Criselda Diala-McBride

about the author
Chris Dalby
Journalist. Editor. China, Mexico, Latin America, Asia, place branding, Olympics, oil and gas, mining, renewable energy, international politics.