Academia to industry: Investment in future talent at URTeC 2024

OLIVIA KABELL, Associate Editor, World Oil June 21, 2024

(WO) - In a Tuesday panel at URTeC 2024, a key industry concern was to “make sure the talent is always flowing.” That was the sentiment expressed by Gretchen Gillis, Senior Geological Consultant, Saudi Aramco, Americas, drawing on a combination of experience with academia and the oil and gas industry. Other panelists included Dr. Zoya Heidari, Associate Professor, The University of Texas, Austin; Dr. Shaina Kelly, Assistant Professor, Columbia University; and Katerina Yared, Project Manager, Projeo Corporation.

Keeping the talent flowing. In the broader question of building the industry’s future workforce, Yared indicated the importance of “luring” members of academia into industry spaces, in pursuit of greater collaboration opportunities. “The talent flow is critical in understanding where our industry is headed,” she noted, not only in terms of building up the future work force, but also in terms of future advancements in technology and changing the narrative of unconventional oil recovery methods—like fracing—as a whole.

It was a common sentiment across the panel, as Dr. Heidari and Gillis were quick to point out the many benefits to both sides of industry-academia collaborations. Namely, academia provides the possibility for long-term research into models and methods that can directly benefit industry, while industry can provide the kind of real-world data that prepare students for future work in industry. Dr. Kelley noted much of the same, with emphasis on the kinds of pilot opportunities—with tech-to-market emphasis—that are possible with joint funding from the industry.

Bumps in the road. However, many challenges remain, as the panelists noted during a Q&A session following the main panel discussion. The “boom and bust” cycles of the industry make attracting talent difficult, according to Yared, and yet, without that new talent, technical knowledge will be lost in the gap between the outgoing and incoming crews. This, Gillis added, is where collaboration with academia is critical to encouraging students into industry fields, because knowing that the opportunities exist in the first place is an issue all its own. Dr. Heidari highlighted existing programs for high school students, where academic instructors can provide the necessary information for future industry careers, but Gillis noted that the critical component will come from industry’s own long-term commitments in academia.

A stake in the game. Investment in the mentorships and relationships necessary to “keep the talent flowing” is labor-intensive and costly, according to Gillis, but without it, recruiting will continue to face difficulty. The panel touched on several methods for interconnecting academia and the broader industry; in response to a question on the difference between education and job training, Yared referenced “dual studies” programs used by companies such as Volkswagen. Students split time between traditional classes and short-term work contracts (for example, two years) within the industry. Dr. Heidari similarly brought up the benefits of industry-sponsored projects, where students also have access to industry data and prepare for the kind of work standards within the industry.

Throughout the varied possibilities for the industry and academia moving forward, a central theme was apparent: academia and industry have clear benefits to gain from greater collaborative efforts. From filling the gap between new and old talent, preserving valuable technical knowledge, and connecting academic lab work to real-world application, the opportunities that exist for industry and academia working together are broad.

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