When discussing Net Zero programs a question that people in the energy and process industries frequently ask is, “How will it affect my career? What do I need to do to stay employed?” Professionals in those industries are rightly concerned that their skills will be less needed in a rapidly changing world, particularly in a world where oil companies have stated that they intend to leave the oil business. And who can blame them for their concern? Change is coming, and change is threatening.
The post A Kodak Moment for the Oil Companies explores some of the challenges that the oil companies face as they enter a Net Zero world. Many of the comments made in that post apply equally to the people who work for those companies. In neither case are there any easy answers. Some will make it through the transition successfully, others will not.
In this post, we offer some initial thoughts on the topic of the ‘Net Zero Professional’. (Given the importance of the theme we intend to offer additional thoughts in subsequent posts.) It must be stressed that these thoughts are just that — they are not answers, no one knows what the Net Zero world is going to look like, or how people will fit into it. We are proposing to make radical changes to the world’s economies and our basic industrial infrastructure within just three decades — the speed and scale of change is totally unprecedented. Therefore, how this will affect the lives of professionals in the industries is anyone’s guess. At best we can see just an outline.
The Net Zero Background
The oil and energy industries have always been subject to ups and downs. But what is going on now feels to be fundamentally different. In the Kodak Moment post we note that executives at major oil companies are proposing to move their companies out of the oil business. It is easy to be skeptical about how deep this commitment will be — after all, those executives have to show a profit to their shareholders. But “nature bats last”; we cannot negotiate with the climate — either we make the changes called for in Net Zero programs or we face much more severe change whether we like it or not.
In the meantime employees and contract workers in the industry are not doing well. For example, a recent article in Forbes magazine contained the following quotations,
Among the integrated supermajors, ExxonMobil shares fell by 53% <during 2020>, Chevron shares were down 41%, and Royal Dutch Shell shares were down 55%. All three companies have announced layoffs, with Shell announcing it will lay off up to 9,000 people.
Among the pure oil and gas producers, ConocoPhillips shares are down 55% and EOG Resources shares have fallen 58%. Both companies have been scaling back activities, and layoffs may be next.
There are many reasons for the decline in oil company fortunes, the COVID-19 pandemic being one of them. Nevertheless, events such as these are not just part of the industry's usual “ups and downs”; 'Net Zero' changes are creating a fundamental shift in the way that business is organized. Therefore both the companies and the people who work for them will need to rethink their goals and actions if they are to survive and flourish in this brave new world.
We are working on a book Net Zero by 2050: Technology for a Changing Climate. Chapter 18 of the book is entitled ‘The Energy Professional’. The current contents of that chapter (very much subject to change) is:
Back to Basics
Jack of All Trades
Physics, not Economics
Choice of Discipline
In this post we will look at just the first of these items: Adaptability. It was selected to start the chapter because most of the other ideas fall within its purview.
The phrase ‘Survival of the Fittest’ is often used when talking about evolution. But Charles Darwin, the person who developed the modern concept of evolution, understood that successful species are those that are most adaptable to changes in their environment. In response to these changes new forms of life will develop, and most of them will die out. But those that best fit the new environment will survive and flourish. Evolution is not about survival of the fittest, it is to do with survival of the most adaptable.
This way of thinking can be applied to the manner in which individuals respond to changes in their work environment. The people who refuse to change are not likely to succeed. And some people will develop new skills that turn out not to be needed. But some people will adapt and fit the new world successfully. Although there is very little that is certain about the future, we can say with some confidence that a person who is adaptable has a higher chance of being successful. For example, we may find that the following three approaches to work may change: high tech, efficiency and maintenance.
In recent years those with a technical background have been drawn to work in the field of automation. Technical developments in this area have been non-stop, and those who can implement this type of technology are likely to be rewarded. (It is interesting to note that the very word “technology” has come to mean “information technology” as if there are no other types.) In the changing world that we are now entering it is possible that, because every effort is being made to switch away from fossil fuels, companies and individuals who adapt to a lower level of technology may be more successful than those who insist on using the very latest inventions and developments.
Another example of how we need to be adaptable is to do with the concept of efficiency. We have grown accustomed to a world where, if something breaks, we simply replace it. It is taken for granted that a replacement part or component is available, and that, due to effective supply chain management, it can be delivered to us in a timely manner. This has led to the mantra of “Do more with less”. We constantly strive for efficiency.
As industry goes through the wrenching changes implicit in Net Zero programs — particularly drastic and sudden cutbacks in the availability of fossil fuels for transportation — we will no longer be able to rely on the immediate availability of replacement items and spare parts. Efficiency will become less attractive, whereas having plenty of items on hand, even though it is an “unnecessary” cost, is likely to be a better management strategy.
A final example of adaptability is to do with maintenance. If spare parts are not as readily available as they are now those organizations and people who are adept at fixing things will have a competitive advantage.