Mind the [Engineering] Gap

Cue Typical Refinery Scene: A nearing-retirement engineer sits, with arms folded and a cantankerous scowl on his face, next to a young, bright-eyed, fresh-out-of-school engineer in a control room working through some issue. Around the table are several youthful souls, a few of whom occasionally look up from their smart phones to make a plea to experiment with a new technology or process, while one or two senior engineers in the room mumble under their breath and groan with an intense skepticism toward any growing IT trend that may be thrown out as a possible solution. While there are several things to unpack in this scenario, a question that first comes to mind is where are all the 35 to 50-year-old engineers?

It is an all too common example of something which became apparent to me in the early years of my employment and has since been made crystal clear based on firsthand interactions with a plethora of other engineering and operating companies; there is a clear and unprecedented age gap in the oil and gas engineering sector. In the last few decades, the engineering sector has been aging. According to the National Science Foundation, the percentage of individuals in the science and engineering labor force between 51 and 75 years of age, has risen from about 20% in 1993 to 34% in 20131.

Figure 1: Age Distribution of Engineers, Source: https://www.nap.edu/read/23402/chapter/6#113

This, of course, leads to the primary concern that an aging engineering population will lead to an expertise apocalypse. Without a readied next generation to bridge the wisdom and skills gap certain to be left by the retirement of many highly-experienced Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), many companies are at imminent risk of extensive “brain drain” and the inability to fill retiree’s jobs with qualified employees. The loss of these SMEs means the loss of real world experience that cannot be gained in school, by reading a book, or from studying a report. How do you replicate the knowledge gained from skin-in-the-game struggles which require engineers to consider all the variables, risks, investments, limitations, and other factors that O&G companies face every day?

Accepting this reality sparks many questions. How did we get here? Is it really a significant problem, and if so, what is the solution?

Some blame the cyclical nature of the O&G industry for significant hiring gaps. Others say it is simply a numbers game; for every 7 Boomers there are only 5 Gen X’ers, according to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services National Center for Health Statistics2. It is also hypothesized that engineering missed the mark in attracting Gen X’ers to the field. Whatever the reason, it is a real issue needing thoughtful consideration and proper planning.

First, we must swiftly focus on the human-to-human transfer of knowledge and skills! The boomers will soon be out-the-door and with them any remaining wisdom retained in their heads. Millennials may come to us with their own challenges and quirks, but they are willing and eager to learn. Utilize the talent you currently have and proactively ensure the transfer of knowledge through apprenticeships and mentorship programs. Be willing to allow short-term losses in productivity for significant long-terms gains. The “lost” time these young engineers spend absorbing knowledge from senior engineers will be paid back tenfold. If you’re not doing it already, heavily encourage and promote peer-to-peer and team training activities such as mentor networks, coaching and work-shadowing. New technologies allow for electronically capturing presentations and lectures. Social and collaborative tools are utilized by many to promote idea sharing, cross-company problem solving and increased dialogue. Implementing all or a combination of the above will ensure the sustainability of the company.

Second, diversity in business is a great thing and this includes both youthful and foreign engineers. Diverse workforces are innovative workforces and are best equipped to tackle difficult engineering challenges. Look for talent and innovative thinkers outside your typical recruiting channels. There are many countries producing engineers at higher rates than the U.S. Looking abroad for highly educated and skilled talent is a good option to help bridge the gap.

A longer-term solution to the age gap is to prevent, as best we can, another large generational workforce hole down the road. Find ways to personally and professionally promote Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (STEM) education. Your organization may wish to sponsor a robotics team, volunteer to mentor in the sciences and mathematics at a local school or invite students in to learn what a career in the engineering field actually looks like. Whatever the strategy, the onus is on us to ensure engineering is a path our youth understand and seriously consider as a viable profession. The future depends on our actions today!

Finally, the idea of using technology to reduce the dependency on engineers is beginning to catch on. This is especially true now that many smart tools come with embedded intelligence. Embrace this phenomenon! In the last decade, there has been an emergence of digital technologies used to collect, store and deliver information. Create a formal process around knowledge management that includes the creation of knowledge repositories where useful information can be stored for retrieval and leveraged quickly and efficiently.

The great engineering workforce turnover will continue to unfold, and it will be interesting to see who comes out on top in this dynamic environment. Those willing to embrace rapid change with intentionality will certainly emerge as the leaders of tomorrow.

Source 1: National Science Foundation, National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, SESTAT (1993, 2013). Age and Retirement of the S&E Workforce. Retrieved from https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/2016/nsb20161/#/report/chapter-3/age-and-retirement-of-the-s-e-workforce

Source 2: Fry, Richard (2018, March 1st). Millennials overtake Baby Boomers as America’s Largest Generation. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/03/01/millennials-overtake-baby-boomers/

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