Energy companies will need to select for different skills and mindsets
By Geoffrey Cann
The energy worker of the future will require a different set of personal attributes than those normally selected for today. Energy companies may well find these attributes in short supply.
One of my more interesting roles is the occasional advisory work for educational institutions on the skills requirements for the energy worker of the future. Since I research and write about energy topics, including energy futures, I do have an opinion on the likely skills, particularly those in the digital area.
And I sympathise with educators. The pace of change is accelerating, while the pace of skills formation, in people at least, is still rather stately—K to twelve, plus post high school trades training, or possibly post secondary in college or university. It has been this way for my entire 60+ circuits around the sun.
If a trained worker is the product, then the educational system is the factory. Unlike an LNG import terminal, a kind of factory that you can build and flick on in a year, it takes many years to design and certify a new curriculum, recruit the educators, and fit out the training facilities. The trained worker might then emerge 4 years after they first enter a program. Educators have to plan seven to ten years out.
Fortunately, energy systems historically haven’t changed much. There are some operational power plants in the US that were designed and built by Thomas Edison himself. The industry model for oil and gas (explore, produce, refine, distribute) was largely baked by Nelson Rockefeller in the 1880s. Training an engineer on boiler design today is nearly identical (thanks to the persistence of math, physics and chemistry), to the training given decades ago. Loyalty to one company was valued, and indeed, some regulated industries even offer jobs for life.
But now energy systems are entering a phase of high uncertainty. Major questions abound on the eventual scale of various energy products, such as the various shades of hydrogen, nuclear energy, battery and energy storage technologies, fusion, fossil fuels, the renewables, geothermal, tidal, and many others. Loyalty seems rather a quaint notion in an aggressive merger and acquisition world.
Most schools lack the capacity to place risky bets on possible energy futures that might not play out, and so seek lots of input before making commitments to new educational directions.
Digital innovations are evolving even faster. The smart phone is a scant 15 years old. ChatGPT was released in December of 2022, and it’s now available on all of those phones. Low cost satellite gear from Starlink, who grew from zero satellites in 2019 to over 4000 today, has enabled modern world participation by rural communities everywhere. There are hundreds of Level 2 self driving car trials the world over. Factories are dominated by robots, with ever fewer front line workers.
Combine these two change vectors (lots of change in both the energy and digital industries), create an absolute shortage of young people to train (thanks to low birth rates and immigration restrictions), increase the number of career options for young people to pursue, and change the nature of work. The probability that the education system is teaching the required skills and knowledge, along with the right mindset, is low.
Which raises two questions to consider:
- What are the skills and knowledge domains that every worker will need to have to be a long term contributor to society?
- What mindset or beliefs will every worker need to share?
Recently I participated in a working session at SAIT on these questions, and this article sets out some of the findings.
Skills of the future
No one has a working crystal ball about the future, but here’s one view of some of the skills of the future, and why.
Technical know how
I can’t see a world yet where the knowhow of the technical disciplines in energy (boiler operations, petroleum engineering, plant operations) somehow vanishes. Since energy infrastructure lasts for decades, we will need these technical disciplines to help manage and maintain that infrastructure.
System-wide know how
Energy systems are becoming more integrated and cross-linked. Where we might traditionally have built a gas power station to deliver peaking power to the grid, in the future that plant will incorporate a carbon capture component, perhaps a storage asset, and very likely a responsive connection directly to a renewable farm. Workers will need to be broader in terms of their grasp of full energy systems, as well as deep in their technical discipline.
Digital and data literacy
Greenfield energy assets are already highly digital, but even brownfield assets are embracing digital tools to enable a reduction in labour attention. One LNG plant in Australia, built a decade ago, is well on its way to eliminating on-site operators in favour of robots and digital twins fed by data sensors. Future workers will be much better educated in data topics and broad digital themes.
Analysis and trouble shooting
More complex assets, integrated energy systems, and high levels of digitalization create a broader surface for mishaps, upsets, curtailments, quality problems, cyber threats, and many other new risks. The playbook for maintaining high availability, reliability, and integrity will thicken considerably. Professionals in the industry will need deeper analytic and trouble shooting skills than they have today to cope with this richer environment.
Organically advancing an integrated, highly digital and interconnected energy system forward in the face of climate pressures, capital constraints, and rising demand for energy will require critical thinking skills. These skills are not selected in today’s hiring model for jobs whose critical performance measures are safety, reliability and cost.
Communications and influence
Effective storytelling and communications are now vitally necessary in energy, not just for community engagement, but for internal success. Automakers all saw Tesla coming for a decade, but why did the incumbents (GM, Ford, Toyota, Daimler, Honda and Volkswagen) fail to tell the story internally to themselves to convince their peers of the need for change? Successful workers in the future will need far better skills at communicating, story telling, narrative building and influencing.
Mindsets and Beliefs
The right technical skills, knowledge and know how are necessary but not sufficient for the future. Workers will need to have the right mindset. Last year I gave a series of lectures about the need to redefine resiliency to include the ability to embrace, not withstand, change pressures. I was arguing that adaptability was one of the new mindsets that the industry needed. It’s mindset shifts that are both hard to achieve, and not always taught at the educational system level.
The mindset of the worker of the future will have some of these attributes.
Energy systems are already very safe, and as we create more integrated and co-dependent energy systems, we will need to maintain our vigilance on safety outcomes. Safety will embrace more than just human safety, to include the environment for today and for future generations.
Commitment to Innovation
The pressures on the energy industry (cost, productivity, growth, capital constraints, talent constraints, climate) can be addressed in many ways, but innovation will be a major tool. Brownfield assets, in particular, need innovations to unfreeze them from their status quo, steady state, and high emissions. Energy companies will need to feel a bit more like a start up with high kinetic internal energy and less like a cruise ship sailing slowly to the sunset.
Fossil fuels are inherently unsustainable. Once the hydrocarbon has been extracted, it doesn’t naturally replenish (unlike a forest where you can plant a replacement tree) on a reasonable timeline. But we also know that some industrial choices worsen this situation—methane actuators on gas wells, vents on tanks, leaky poorly maintained equipment. Workers throughout the industry will be called on to elevate sustainability to a top of mind driver, and not something delegated to a special purpose CEO committee.
I’ve been struck by the extraordinary wave of opportunity unlocked by the US’s Inflation Reduction Act. Entrepreneurs are aggressively chasing all of the new opportunities in energy. This mindset, towards optimism, to growth and to opportunity, will be required everywhere for success, particularly in the brownfield. Just as Tesla outmanoeuvred the auto industry, start ups may well capture the future of energy from the incumbents.
The transformation of the energy industry (bigger, more integrated, more digital, fewer people, more sustainable), puts paid to the notion that any one company will have all the requisite skills and know how for the future. Collaboration and teamwork, not just within a company (and that’s already hard enough in energy) but across companies will be how we are able to harness the resources needed for both the growth in demand for energy and the desire for cleaner energy.
It will take years for the education systems to get ahead of these needs, and years still for new workers to gain the required skills and mindset for the future. Meanwhile, we have an existing workforce that energy companies have no option but to sculpt. It’s time to get cracking.
I drew the artwork for this week using an iPad and Procreate.