Reflecting on his career, a gas executive in his 30s sums up the appeal of his industry. “I worked in Saudi Arabia, and they sent me on a course to learn desert driving, going over the sand in a truck. What other business in the world would give you the opportunity to do that?”
In what other industry, too, would employees, be strapped into a mock-up of a helicopter, plunged into darkness, turned upside down and dropped into a pool of freezing water?
That is what happens at the culmination of the survival training course for staff flying out to oil and gas platforms in the North Sea. Scuba divers are on hand to rescue anyone who may not have been paying close enough attention during the theory part of the course.
Working in the oil and gas industry has many rewards, particularly now, when business is booming and skilled staff are in short supply.
But one of the greatest is the chance to go to places and see things that office-bound contemporaries can barely imagine.
Gas flares twinkling in the darkness of the North Sea or the Gulf of Mexico, the vast pits carved out of the forest in Canada’s oil sands, the unearthly beauty of sunset in the red sand dunes of Saudi Arabia’s Empty Quarter; a career in oil and gas could show you all this and more.
Geology and politics determine the shape of the industry: where the reserves are, and whether companies are allowed to exploit them.
As the demand for resources grows, fuelled by the prodigious growth of emerging economies, above all China, those factors have been pushing the quest for oil and gas into more remote and challenging places.
As the old saying has it: “God did not put oil in Switzerland.” He did put it in the US, the UK and Norway, but in the developed world production is generally in decline, or at best stagnating.
There are still opportunities for working in those countries: profitable businesses can be built squeezing the last few drops of oil out of declining fields in Texas or the North Sea.
But jobs have been going from some companies: Royal Dutch Shell recently announced 180 job cuts from its Scottish offices in Aberdeen. The growth potential is generally further afield.
The countries with the biggest reserves, the members of Opec, the oil producers’ group, and Russia, are difficult for international oil companies to operate in, and many have become more difficult in recent years. However, none is completely closed. Even in Iraq, foreign companies are working in the generally peaceful Kurdish region in the north of the country.
Even in Iran, there are some small projects with foreign companies, and preparatory work on some very big projects that could go ahead if business and politics allow.
Service companies are welcome anywhere, and have benefited from the boom of recent years more than the international oil companies (IOCs) such as ExxonMobil and BP.
Schlumberger, for example, the world’s biggest oil services company, has had huge success in Saudi Arabia and Russia: two countries where the IOCs have struggled.
The growth opportunities for the oil majors are generally where the challenges are the greatest: places that are too cold, too hot, too far away or some combination of the above.
Oil far below the sea bed in very deep water or in Arctic conditions, and gas that is polluted with contaminants or in rocks from which it will not flow easily are becoming the heart of the business model of the IOCs.
That means that engineering and scientific skills at the very highest level are becoming ever more important. Jorma Ollila, Shell’s chairman and the former chief executive of Nokia, is one of many industry leaders who have argued that they are essentially in the technology business. Most big companies are looking to recruit more skilled staff.
That puts engineers and geologists with the right abilities in a particularly advantageous position, because most companies ran down their staffing during the period of low energy prices between the mid-1980s and the start of this decade.
The wave of huge mergers at the end of the 1990s that brought together Exxon with Mobil, BP with Amoco and Chevron with Texaco led to a wave of job cuts that many companies are now trying to reverse,
Employers’ age profiles typically show a hump of staff in their 40s and early 50s, who were recruited during the last great industry boom of the 1970s and early 1980s.
Those employees are coming up for retirement, and the need to replace them is increasing the pressure on the jobs market.
Booz Allen Hamilton, the consultancy, warned in a recent report of what it called the “labour crunch”.
It found that 50 per cent of professional exploration and production staff were aged between 40-50, and just 15 per cent were aged between their early 20s to mid-30s.
One solution is increased training and education, and some universities are raising their output of petroleum engineers. Another is the increased effort to keep experienced professionals working.
Perhaps the most profound change, however, is in the increased internationalisation of the workforce.
Many companies are increasing their proportion of local hires in the countries where they operate, rather than bringing in expatriates, but they are also taking staff from those countries and deploying them around the world.
There are Africans and Venezuelans working in Canada’s oil sands, for example.
There is also a shift in the location of education and training provision.
Lamprell, the Abu Dhabi-based oil services company, last year opened a training facility in India.
Schlumberger has built two new facilities: one in Russia and one in Abu Dhabi.
Those developments create opportunities for people to have global careers who might never have expected them.
One other reward of working in oil and gas is perhaps the least appreciated: the unpredictability of it. In spite of all the science and technology that is involved, even the best companies are ultimately at the mercy of nature.
Sir Bill Gammell of Cairn Energy, a small British company that made a huge oil find in India, says the business is all about creativity.
“Oil is found in the mind: one person’s idea bounces off another’s. You have to take bold risks, and encourage people to be bold, and encourage off-the-wall thinking,” he says.
Every day, wells are being drilled that may be a huge waste of money, or may make a fortune.
Working in oil and gas gives you the chance to play in that game.