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Education Forum: It Is More About Head Content Than Head Count

SPE recently sponsored a forum on the need to ensure an appropriately educated upstream engineering workforce in 2020 and beyond. Titled 2020 Foresight: Ensuring Excellence in Petroleum Engineering Education, the session took place in August in Idaho. Attendees concluded that the current petroleum engineering educational systems are not sustainable to produce the talent that the oil and gas industry will need in 2020 unless the industry and academia make this issue a priority and collaborate on ways to resolve the anticipated underlying gaps.

The idea for the forum grew out of a series of colloquia on petroleum engineering education dating back to 1991. Past colloquia were geared toward aligning education with meeting the industry’s needs, as well as developing continuous improvement processes and refining program assessment methods. Over time, the SPE Board of Directors has become concerned about potentially significant problems developing in the global petroleum engineering education system and the ability of the system to sustainably produce the talent that industry will need in the next decade. The SPE Board sanctioned the forum in an effort to bring academia and industry representatives together to collaborate and propose solutions to the issues.

Forty-seven participants from 10 countries on five continents representing academia (57%) and industry (43%) spent a week analyzing the current and future engineering resourcing environments. The group identified the following key issues to help define the business imperative toward making petroleum engineering education more sustainable.

  • Although regional pressures exist near term in sub-Saharan Africa, the United States, and the Middle East/North Africa region, there may be a talent gap rather than a people shortage in the industry by 2020. Gaps in both technical and nontechnical skills were identified as barriers for an effective petroleum engineer in the future. This may make a degree in petroleum engineering with relevant course work even more valuable to some companies, where new petroleum engineering hires can contribute earlier than graduates from other engineering disciplines without the domain-specific training.
  • Petroleum engineering faculty demographics are of significant concern and the feeder pool of PhDs being attracted to academia is currently inadequate. The number of current faculty vacancies was cited as a leading indicator. For example, nearly two-thirds of the US faculty will qualify for retirement in the next 10 years. Although demographic data was only available for US petroleum engineering departments, faculty from other regions attending the forum anecdotally agreed that the situations in their countries or regions were similar or more challenging. 
  • A root cause of the faculty shortage is that petroleum engineering PhD faculty compensation and benefit packages are not competitive with industry packages. 
  • Many new petroleum engineering PhD graduates lack industry experience. Those recruited into faculty positions from other disciplines also typically lack practical industry experience and require significant assimilation. 
  • Industry economic cycles create significant pressures on petroleum engineering programs with variable enrollments and employment prospects for graduates while universities face faculty hiring and facility constraints. Facility constraints include laboratory space and equipment as well as classrooms and infrastructure (e.g., computing power). 

Five key gaps to achieving a sustainable, global petroleum engineering education system were identified by forum participants.

  • A need for collective collaboration between industry and academia to develop local faculty and students, especially in developing and emerging petroleum-producing countries
  • A need for new education delivery partnerships and innovative thinking in and between universities
  • A need for pioneering relationships between industry and academia to supplement teaching gaps, research funding, and knowledge transfer to future generations of faculty and students
  • Use of state-of-the-art pedagogical and communication technologies
  • Development of better mentoring capabilities and tools for use across industry and academia

Forum participants have volunteered to champion specific and actionable initiatives, which will require SPE membership participation in many cases. These initiatives will help address these gaps and contribute to improving the industry’s ability to meet its resourcing needs in the next decade. Forum attendees unanimously agreed that the time is now for academia, industry, and SPE to collaboratively address the resourcing challenges that face the industry.

The results and recommendations of the forum are being documented in a white paper that will be published later this year. A discussion item will also be posted on SPE Connect and SPE’s Linked-In group to field questions and comments in reference to this article.


  • Schlumberger Business Consulting Oil and Gas HR Benchmark Study. 2012.
  • Howes, S. and Heinze, L. 2012. New Global Awards Launched for Petroleum Engineering Faculty. J. Pet Tech 64 (3) 54–57.