New solutions for an old problem

A new generation and new technology are the answer to the rapidly developing skills gaps in the oil and gas industry. By Youssef Mestari

The problem of aging in the oil and gas industry is, as the saying goes, getting old. There are few who do not recognise the issue the industry faces as an entire generation of workers retire, taking with them decades of knowledge and experience. Today, the youngest of the baby boomers – who have long dominated the industry – are in their mid-fifties; the oldest are well into retirement at over 70.

One in five oil and gas professionals already say the industry lacks the right talent for growth. This is the ‘demographic cliff’ World Petroleum Council Director General Dr Pierce Riemer has long warned of. It can’t be avoided; the job now is to ensure a soft landing.

The cushion will come in the form of a new generation of ‘millennial’ workers. Born in the 1980s and first half of the 1990s, it is a generation with the numbers to fill this gap; they are already the largest demographic in the US workforce and in total easily outnumber the baby boomers. The transformation in workplaces is going to be rapid. Already, by 2020, millennials are expected to account for more than half of all employees globally. Less often noted is that they also have the skills the industry needs for a successful transition.

Generational differences between outgoing retirees and younger co-workers and recruits are – like the issue of the ageing workforce – well-trodden ground. Some of the stereotypes are misleading but others are well-founded – and we should be thankful for it. The younger generation are, by and large, technologically savvy, a generation of ‘digital natives’. The industry can use that.

The aging workforce for oil and gas represents two problems. One of knowledge retention, to ensure skills, experience and insights of the outgoing workforce are captured before workers retire and they are lost; and one of knowledge transfer – so that they can be effectively and efficiently passed on to younger workers.

Millennials’ ease with technology will be essential to overcoming both these issues, and two technologies in particular could play a key role in conquering the skills gaps in the industry.

Practice makes perfect
The first is immersive technologies – whether Virtual Reality (VR), using the headsets most people are familiar with; or Augmented (or ‘mixed’) Reality (AR), in which computer images are projected onto the real world. A sophisticated AR solution still uses a headset, like VR, but one that still provides visibility of the outside world (a bit like a fighter pilot’s heads-up display). A basic version may just use a smartphone, overlaying the computer graphics onto the images captured by the device’s camera app.

Less important than what it does is how it does it. These technologies provide workers with hands-on practice of tasks in realistic, but safe environments. Using a headset and a learning module, they can manipulate a photo-realistic 3D image of a device or equipment and practice a key maintenance task, for example.

Research shows that hands-on practice enables students to retain up to eight times the information they do from traditional class-room based training (the basis of the ‘learning pyramid’) – massively accelerating the time to competency. For a generation raised on 3D video games, the approach is particularly effective.

The second key technology is intelligent wearables. Again, popularised in the consumer market with fitness trackers, the most advanced industrial solutions, combine something of that portability along with the versatility of modern smart phones and the ease of operation of voice-activated smart speakers, such as Amazon’s Echo devices.

Again, though, the delivery mechanism is less important than the information delivered. Wearable technologies can allow users to capture and share pictures and video, pull up live data on devices and processes, and connect to experts in the central control room or elsewhere who see the same view as they do. Crucially, combined with workflow management software, we can also capture the experience of older workers, and pass it onto workers in the field in the form of step-by-step guidance and tutorials to completing key tasks.

A hands-free, voice-activated wearable computer is probably the most sophisticated solution for these applications, which is especially helpful on more high-risk offshore platforms, but much of this functionality could be delivered using existing tablets and smart phones. As the workplace changes, the technology needs to move with it, and the approach to training and competency will in large part determine how the industry copes with the demographic shift it faces. If we’re going to deal with this problem of workers getting old, we need to embrace some new ways of doing things.

For a list of sources used in the creation of this article, please contact the editor.

Honeywell Connected Plant
Youssef Mestari is programme director of Honeywell Connected Plant. Honeywell Connected Plant is a suite of applications that delivers higher levels of safety, reliability, efficiency and profitability. These proven industry solutions are based on decades of domain knowledge and controls experience. They turn data into actionable insight so you can optimise operations, predict plant failures and eliminate unplanned downtime.

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