Hitting Reset: Some thoughts on adapting for a post-oil world

Photo by Jose Antonio Gallego Vázquez on Unsplash

When I reflected on life at the turn of the year, and wondered what the year would be for me, Delve Deeper came to mind. Behind that was the understanding, inspired in part by the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Builders, that everything worth its salt is tested, and only those which had roots sunk deep would survive. I was also on the cusp of quitting my job up north with the prospect of the move of a lifetime looming. Whatever your particular take on COVID-19 is — elaborate hoax, a pretext for instituting a new world order or a symptom of a broken world — what is incontrovertible is that in its wake has come a seismic change to the world and what we know of it. For all the preening, posturing and the facade of strength the world economies have presented, 2020 has shown it all up like an edifice built on shifting sands to use a biblical metaphor. The Emperor’s new clothes, for all we can see, are anything but a covering.

Within the wider context of the shutdown of the world’s systems, the latest iteration of oil’s boom and bust cycle hit close to home, the precipitous dive in the price of oil, particularly the Brent benchmark, from just under $70 to a low of $18 and change the latest trigger in the latest race to trim the fat by companies all along the oil supply and value chain. To be fair, COVID-19, the global shutdowns and the resulting supply glut were only the straw that broke the back of camel increasingly hassled by headwinds such as the continued rise of green energy and their activists, US shale and players (read Russia and Saudi Arabia) only too happy to throw their weight around in an attempt to eke out more market share. A perfect storm perhaps, but all told it is a sequence of events which leaves some (full disclosure like me) who are invested in the industry for their livelihood concerned about the future and what it portends.

With projects no longer economic at current pricing levels, job cuts at majors and their key suppliers are inevitable with BP looking to trim up 10,000 job globally and Saudi Aramco looking to do the same for about 8,000 jobs. Job losses in my old stomping ground in the North Sea were estimated to be in excess of 4,500 in June. Across the pond in America, the first bankruptcies have occurred with surely more to come, all symptoms of the highly leveraged low margin environment the oil patch, at least in the West, has become. Of course, one has to take the good with the bad, and roll with the punches, although it does significantly impact the prospects for attracting future talent into the industry. That, and improving the gender balance and the average age of those in the industry, have been stated objectives for the UK sector of the North Sea with various diversity and inclusion initiatives been fronted as recently as last week. There is also the slight worry that the boom periods between bust (and slash and burn) are getting shorter. Change is afoot in many ways than one.

Change they say is inevitable, it is those who are able to adapt who survive and thrive though, all of which has left me thinking long and hard about the future, and what it portends. The obvious response is to consider a career reinvention, one which untethers me from the tentacles of big oil. Three criteria come to mind in determining what sort of direction such a move might take: the development of domain agnostic skills (to ensure I don’t get stuck in a different version of the big-oil problem), a non-zero entry point( to ensure some or all of my current skills are transferable) and a high ceiling (to ensure there is scope for growth). My oil and gas niche, with some retooling, lends itself to some level of cross-domain application, being relevant across a number of high hazard industries where corrosion and asset integrity is a concern (nuclear, wind, buildings/ infrastructure and even automobiles) as do the quantitative and analytical skills which practising as an engineer have also developed. Risk analysis and management skills are also useful, as are project management and coordination skills.

I am betting on data, as it ticks all three of the criteria above with the added bonus of enabling remote/ flexible working practices and being applicable in my current role. It will take some retooling – for all my flirting with Python, there is a knowledge gap to be plugged there, as well as a time requirement to build the confidence and skills that deliberate practice brings. I may have missed planting this tree 20 years ago, the bigger mistake would be failing to plant it today.

31 Days of Journaling, Day 22: If I Won A (Small) Lottery

Playing football manager doesn’t count I suspect so I’ll have to go with the next thing which I am finding is playing around with data in Jupyter. This is something I am enjoying so much that I am seriously wondering if Corrosion & Materials remain a strong force in my future. Unfortunately I haven’t learned enough of the data science domain for it to be my main stay going forward, but if money were no object, that would be where I would go. That much is not uncertain.

31 Days of Journaling, Day 8: On Work, A Timeline

For Day 8 of the AoM 31 Day Journaling Challenge: Reflect on Your Career.

Work for me has focused on materials, particularly ferrous ones, and how they perform in a variety of oil and gas environments, on two continents; Africa of my birth and Europe where I have spent the last few years. My journey began in December of 2003 with being hired straight out of University in 2003 as a trainee engineer through progressing via a number of roles in various aspects of the corrosion and materials discipline and eventually leaving in October of 2008, thanks to a mixture of burn out and the opportunity to return to the university for graduate studies. Since graduating in July of 2009, I’ve gotten back into the Corrosion & Materials field first with a service provider and latterly with an oil & gas production company where I am Corrosion & Materials Technical Authority.

Looking back, the early years were some of the best, being hired at one of the biggest oil and gas companies as part of a cohort of four others helped engender a sense of being special with resources available to develop us. 2008, was one of the most pressure filled years, culminating in my leaving to grad school, a few months out and then a return to industry in 2010.

The future is one that is a bit of a toss up at the moment. I feel like to truly reach the heights I wish to reach –  in which I am a broad based technical specialist able to contribute across design, operations and decommissioning – I need time in a design house or consultancy. That is likely to take a pay cut for some time to get into that slightly different field. There is also the question of my increasing interest in data science, analytics and machine learning and the real opportunities I see to migrate those critical skill sets into the oil and as domain. Perhaps the sweet spot would be to combine Corrosion Science and Analytics into a service (CorrSci Analytics?)  I can sell as a consultant in future?