With the oil and gas industry currently in an upward cycle, driven by the natural gas shale-play discoveries in the United States, companies continue to scramble for quality talent to fill an array of positions, predominantly in engineering and design roles.
“It’s a glory time for engineering and design,” said Tim Turner, the recruiting manager of Foster Wheeler USA, a global engineering and construction company. “From my perspective, I’m seeing a lot of new projects and anticipate a very positive outlook for the near future.”
The demand for experienced talent is tremendous. Bill Bradshaw, president of Affinity, a specialized staffing and recruiting services company, said career opportunities are hot for oil and gas engineers.
“It’s all disciplines – structural, process, designers – it’s not just one group blowing up, they are all blowing up,” he said. “We are doing our best to keep up with domestic demand. We have so many opportunities to help companies in the United States we aren’t even looking overseas.”
Ryan Hanemann, president of Audubon Engineering, agreed.
“It’s all about talent acquisition now,” he said. “Every discipline of engineer and draftsman is in demand and it’s difficult to find the best people in every discipline. It’s a resource-constrained market.”
Turner said the majority of job opportunities are in the downstream sector of refining and petrochemicals, but that the offshore industry in the upstream sector is on the rise. He said all disciplines are sought, but tops his list with mechanical and process engineers.
“The biggest emphasis is on the planning and scheduling disciplines,” he said.
With the competition for experienced talent described as “cut-throat” by Hanemann, companies need to be creative in finding and retaining employees.
“At Audubon we are doing controlled growth by only hiring people referred to us by employees,” he said. “Our employees help us in the ‘quest for the best’ by building their own teams and turning the company into a club that people want to get into.”
Audubon moved to this strategy from a broader, fishnet approach to recruiting to ensure applicant quality, Hanemann said. Turner said there is no lack of applicants, but the issue is finding people with industry and project experience.
“We are all trying to find the exact same person and competing with offers from several companies at one time,” he said. “We’re very pleased that Foster Wheeler has one of the strongest college graduate-recruiting programs with a large number of new hires from colleges, but at same time, we have to keep a focus on more experienced engineers and designers who can launch immediately and without supervision.”
Turner said that proven tenure with projects and companies is crucial for many of their positions. Foster Wheeler has expanded the geography of its talent search beyond the Houston area to other parts of the United States and Canada, while maintaining stringent standards for applicants.
“We never sacrifice on those requirements,” he said. “It does take more patience and more creative recruiting methods, but our clients are counting on us to provide same top quality and we can’t do that if we hire someone unqualified for the position.”
Rather than escalate salaries, companies are looking for ways to improve benefits and workplaces to attract and retain talent. Turner said he hears from recruits that key determiners can include paid time off, retirement contributions and wait time for benefits eligibility.
College graduates represent a huge prospect pool to all the companies, with more students showing an interest recently in oil and gas careers. Hanemann attributed this primarily to attractive salaries and numerous job opportunities, but also to a more philosophical pursuit.
“It’s exciting to feel like you are doing something important, because this is what civilization needs,” he said. “It’s a noble quest as well as a profitable one.”
Bradshaw agreed that potential income is a big draw for students, and sees an idealistic interest in the challenges of how to produce cleaner and safer energy. Though fresh graduates have great potential, the real job training comes down to the employers teaching and mentoring to bring along new hires quickly, he said.
Many oil and gas companies are responding to this need by putting programs in place internally to mature young talent. For example, Foster Wheeler has a strong mentoring program, Turner said. And, Audubon Engineering has Audubon University for its new graduate hires.
“It’s really about developing young people,” Hanemann said.
Bradshaw said recruiting efforts need to start even earlier than college level.
“The engineering companies and operators have to get out to the junior high and high schools,” he said. “They have to point out the whole industry as a viable choice for a career. And we need to change the perception that the only people who can be engineers are those extremely good at math. Yes, you have to be smart and have some technical ability, but it is so much more than that. It’s project management, it’s self-management, it’s people skills.”
All three experts agree that it is a great time to have a technical degree.
“I believe that even with importing talent, we still aren’t going to be able to keep up with the demand,” Bradshaw said. “It’s a great profession to be in with tons of opportunity. You can do almost anything. Companies are looking for great people.”