The sleek modern lines of NYU Abu Dhabi were the fitting venue last week for a debate on the next generation in the energy business. The Gulf Intelligence UAE Energy Forum put forward the proposition that “millennials are not ready to take over the oil and gas industry from the baby boomers”. As the generation born in the 1950s and ‘60s gives way to those of the ‘80s, will this be a smooth transition or a shock?
The changeover is really a matter of necessity, not choice. The youngest baby boomers today are 53. The oil industry has for some years been going through its "great crew change" as the older generation retires, and the current oil price slump is only accelerating that.
The UAE Minister of Energy Suhail Al Mazrouei, present at the event, emphasised his own youth, at 43. That makes him part of the industry’s emerging leadership, in “Generation X” like myself, between the boomers and millennials, but the layoffs of the ‘90s have left this generation worryingly thin. Meanwhile, youth employment and the dearth of high-quality jobs is a concern around the world.
The millennials’ fitness for their role really falls into two parts. Portrayed as “tech-savvy” – a stereotype that overpraises some while denigrating the earlier generation that actually created the internet – they nevertheless have the technical skills required. Gaining experience takes time, but oil and gas companies could change the mindset to bring young people on board more quickly. The age of big data and the Internet of Things offers many opportunities.
It was the same when I entered the industry in the late ‘90s. Digital modelling of oilfields was just becoming mainstream, creating a culture clash between the old school who emphasised “knowing the rocks”, and the juniors whom they derided as “Nintendo geologists”. But the unlocking of 3D seismic analysis and computer optimisation of field development kept the industry alive through the ‘90s slump.
Although capable, do the millennials want to join the oil and gas business? In the West, at least, it is widely seen as dirty, contributing to climate change, professionally dull, and a "sunset" industry with little future.
By contrast, within the field of energy, the image of solar power and electric vehicles is galvanised by the charismatic Elon Musk of Tesla Motors, SolarCity and SpaceX. More widely, tech start-ups are seen as the speedy way to fame and riches, as well as to "changing the world" through innovations such as internet toasters that print faces on bread.
The traditional energy industry has done a poor job of advertising itself. Under attack from environmentalists, social activists and consumer advocates, it has been secretive and defensive.
But it has a great story to tell. What other industry offers well-paid international careers in some of the world’s most exciting countries, innovative technologies making multibillion dollar projects possible from the Siberian tundra and the deep seas to the Sahara desert, shifts in commodity markets that transform nations and the world economy, and the mission of bringing modern energy to the billions of people without it?
Of course, the petroleum business has to battle in the court of public opinion with the burden of a US contingent that has aligned itself with the most regressive anti-climate forces. But making oil and gas compatible with a liveable climate is a task to be achieved from within the industry, not outside it.
While millennials are ready to take over, the converse question is whether the energy industry is ready for them. The oil companies have to capture the sense of mission, fun and self-realisation associated with a Google, without losing their professional integrity.
The audience voted narrowly that the millennials are not ready. That would be bad news for the bedrock of the regional economy. But if the next generation is not ready and willing, the corporations have only themselves to blame.
Robin Mills is CEO of Qamar Energy, and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis.
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