Help wanted: Oil jobs

The oil industry is scrambling to attract young workers as 80% of its aging workforce is headed for the door.

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By Steve Hargreaves, staff writer

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The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Colorado is the nation's leading research center for green energy.

HOUSTON ( -- The oil industry is on the edge of a huge labor crisis.

80% of its skilled workforce is expected to age out in the next ten years without eager, younger workers available to replace them.

"There's a perception the industry is old, dirty," said Pete Stark, vice president of industry relations for IHS, Cambridge Energy Research Associates' (CERA) parent company. "It's lost its sex appeal."

Plus, the industry suffers from a reputation of laying off workers during periods of low oil prices, as it did in the 1980s and 1990s.

As a result of those layoffs, the sector is now scrambling to replace a huge number of skilled workers set to retire over the next decade.

Oil and gas companies are trying to change their top-down, rigid management styles, hoping to attract younger workers.

The industry is tapping into technology like instant messaging, remote data access, and even social networking sites. Craig Hodges, director of energy for Microsoft, said one oil service company has asked its employees to set up in-house Facebook-style pages, complete with training, experience, skill set and regions of expertise.

"You then have the ability to connect with people who have been there, who have worked there," said Hodges.

During a recent training session at ConocoPhillips (COP, Fortune 500), all of the 31 new employees had social networking sites of their own said Dan Renta, Conoco's director of knowledge sharing on Wednesday at Cambridge Energy Research Associates' (CERA) annual energy conference held this week in Houston.

This embrace of technology and a looser management style is all part of an industry effort to attract the next generation of skilled science-based workers in an era when companies like Google or Genentech can seem like a more promising place to work.

But oil industry executives concede that the industry must do more than simply rejuvenate its geriatric image, it also needs more young people to pursue studies that will lead to oil jobs.

For example, the number of students studying petroleum engineering dropped to 1,700 in 2004, down from 11,000 in 1993, according to a paper from the consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.

IHS' Stark said the industry is expanding the number of professorships and other programs it sponsors at universities as a means of bringing in new recruits. It is also increasing the number of scholarships and tutoring opportunities it offers to drive more students into math, science and engineering.

Stark said efforts by the oil industry to reach out and work with community and environmental groups in locations with oil projects are also beginning to pay off.

"It's a radical change," he said. "As that happens, the message is being communicated that the oil industry is part of the solution."

Whether young workers perceive oil companies as part of the solution or not, there's little question these firms will continue to meet a huge portion of the world's energy needs for decades to come.

So convincing students to study things like petroleum or chemical engineering as a chance to influence future energy decisions is another tactic, said Linda Cook, executive director for gas and power at Royal Dutch Shell, (RDSA) the world's second largest publicly-traded oil company behind Exxon Mobil (XOM, Fortune 500).

"Lets face it, engineering sounds kinda boring," said Cook, herself a petroleum engineer. "If you say 'help us solve the energy challenge,' that's probably a much better way to capture their imagination."
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