Building a Career Pipeline: New Generation of Industry Talent Awaits

September 2015, Vol. 242, No. 9

Richard Nemec, Contributing Editor

As Mark Miller, a senior oil and natural gas executive with years of experience, was addressing a Baker Hostetler Shale Symposium in Houston in mid-2015 he could not resist the opportunity to talk about a favorite subject, “the transfer of knowledge to the next generation of workers” in the industry and an industry-backed program in Houston schools. It involves early energy education for high school students.

“It allows young people to learn a career as early as the ninth grade,” Miller told a group of mostly young professionals at the shale symposium. “They’re learning about geosciences, engineering, land applications and geophysics. Think back how much further ahead you would be if you had a chance in ninth grade to be exposed to the careers you’re involved in now.”

As president of Louisiana-based Merlin Oil & Gas and vice chairman of the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA), Miller credited IPAA with starting a decade ago to address the now more imminent challenge of ensuring the next generation of engineering and technical talent in the energy industry through what is now called The Petroleum Academy in the Houston schools.

“If you’re 15 years old, and that fire is lit inside of you, then you can enter college knowing exactly what you want to do. These kids are starting younger and they’re getting it,” said Miller, calling the effort “an amazing success story” made possible by various companies providing money and site visits.

What Miller and other experienced energy industry leaders are saying and reflecting is the profoundly different businesses that oil, gas and pipelines are today, 16 years into the 21st century. A lot of the guesswork and gambling is gone and it’s a lot like 20th century manufacturing. The influences on the developing intelligentsia making the sector go are no longer found in silos embedded in global companies, but in horizontal networking with stakeholders, operators, regulators and interest groups.

The approach in Houston is just one initiative addressing where the talent will come from to replace a graying workforce that is projected to have hundreds of thousands of new jobs by 2030. It is a conundrum facing both the private and public sectors worldwide, particularly in North America. Efforts in California and Canada, as well as Houston, recognize the challenge and are addressing it.

A recent Harvard/Boston Consulting Group (BCG) economic treatise found unconventional energy development will be a critical piece of the future U.S. economy, contributing $430 billion and 2.7 million jobs in 2014. The report called unconventional gas and oil resources [shale and tight oil/gas] “the single largest opportunity to improve the trajectory of the U.S. economy.”

“Today, this industry has moved from an environment of exploration/production into one more closely aligned with manufacturing,” said Mike McGonagill, retired COO from Alliance Pipeline, whose father and grandfather worked in oil and gas in New Mexico. “That’s the downhole side. Due to the decades of drilling and mapping they know where the reservoirs are and now it’s pure manufacturing, efficiencies of scale, scalability, requiring up-down adjustments as we experience in shale plays today. It is very similar to the supply/demand economics of any commodity.”

That, in turn, is changing the pipeline industry as it “repipes” America for this new economic environment, McGonagill said.

The Harvard/BCG report, which examined energy broadly, including renewables and efficiency programs, said general public support for the energy sector is lacking, and listed 11 goals for fully developing U.S. potential, including “timely development of new infrastructure” and “delivering a skilled workforce.” This and other analyses envision 25-50% of the workforce leaving by 2020.

Globally, the London-based World Energy Council established the Future Energy Leaders Programme as its platform for “engaging the best and brightest of young professionals” with the specific aim of helping create a crucible for shaping the next generation of energy industry leaders. Members of the group share a commitment to shaping the global energy future.

McGonagill said it’s been widely recognized that a body of young professionals was needed in the U.S. industry. “To our surprise, young, self-motivated professional groups have sprung up on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border” with the Young Pipeline Professionals (YPP) growing wings this year in the U.S. and a more mature 3-year-old group, Young Pipeliners Association of Canada (YPAC), he said.

YPP has had the double benefit of learning from its peer group at YPAC and from seasoned industry professionals such as McGonagill and Patrick Vieth, Dynamic Risk’s senior executive for technical services.

“This effort has been championed through the American Society of Mechanical Engineers [ASME] at a national and international level by Vieth, who is part of ASME’s senior leadership team,” said McGonagill, adding that Vieth’s leadership and encouragement of YPP has been a key. Meanwhile, the public sector is feeling the drumbeat, too. California has recognized a need for a special program aimed at long-term recruitment and retention of oil and gas technical expertise.

“We’re looking to call it a ‘career pipeline’ in keeping with our theme of oil/gas regulation,” said a spokesperson in the California Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). There has been unprecedented growth with the advent of hydraulic fracturing rules and climate change-driven regulations that are straining the state unit’s ability to keep up with enough skilled staff.

Being proactive in professional recruitment and development is a relatively new phenomenon for the state agency, said Jason Marshall, the conservation department’s acting director.

“We’re talking to trade journals and letting people know in the industry that the state of California is hiring. We want to drive candidates toward us, and if they come, we’ll help them through the process. Now a candidate can take the required state qualifying examination online and see how well he or she scores,” Marshall said.

Scoring big time is part of the motivation for the networking and professional development objectives at YPP and YPAC. One of four bullet points in the stated “purposes/vision” for YPP is identified as “Be awesome!” The other three talk about educating young professionals, creating leadership opportunities and networks for them and the betterment of the industry overall.

Lofty sounding … energetic … enthusiastic. This pretty much describes Molly Laughlin, Tara Podnar McMahan, Colin McGonagill and Cassandra Stacey, four of the young professionals in the industry who have helped shape YPP as a budding organization expected to flower by the end of 2015.

Using the older YPAC organization in Alberta as a model, the founding YPP members have coalesced with some experienced mentoring senior advisors, such as Vieth, whose Dynamic Risk is one of the leading integrity management providers in North America, and Colin McGonagill’s father, Mike, the retired Alliance Pipeline executive.

Emphasizing the need to retain the knowledge and experience of the pipeline industry’s most senior personnel, McMahan, an integrity solutions leader at Det Norske Veritas (USA) and head of YPP, said the successors to today’s pipeline technical experts must be prepared and equipped “to accept the ‘duty of care’ for the pipeline industry, which includes care for the environment, the public, the industry’s assets and care for one another.”

The gumbo this has produced includes a new U.S. organization for young professionals in the industry that counted hundreds of prospective members and over a dozen chapters waiting to spring forth after July’s meeting of the Southern Gas Association (SGA) in Nashville. Involving nearly two dozen working groups, the initial YPP board worked for six months “to get all our ducks in a row and avoid getting overwhelmed,” said Laughlin, who is marketing manager for Clock Spring, a Houston-based manufacturer of composite pipeline repair solutions.

Reflecting on his 2014 chairmanship of the International Pipeline Conference, Vieth recalled being inspired by a presentation on YPAC which motivated him to help create a similar organization in the U.S. He wants to see YPP develop relationships across the industry with major established groups such as the SGA, ASME, Pipeline Research Council International (PRCI), National Association of Corrosion Engineers (NACE), American Petroleum Institute (API) and Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA).

“It’s my hope that YPP USA meets its mission so that the young pipeliners of today are prepared to accept the transfer of the duty of care for the pipeline industry so that today’s industry leaders can retire with full confidence in their successors that they have the knowledge, confidence and networks to meet any challenge they may face in the future,” said Tara Podnar McMahan.

Noting their colleagues at YPAC were instrumental in helping shape YPP, Laughlin said the Canadian young professionals, now a 780-member organization, offered “advice on how they got started and what we needed to do early on. Overall, I think we complement each other very well.”

Two of YPAC’s founding members and leaders, Alina Gabdrakhmanova, a Russian/Australian-educated, Calgary-based engineer with Worley Parsons, and Peter Tanchak, a Canadian-born engineer working with Enbridge Pipelines, were previously coworkers at Worley, and view alliances and networking as keys to their professional and career growth.

Like YPP, the Canadian group owes its success to a dedicated group of senior advisors from the industry, and particularly the leadership and vision of Daryl Ronsky, a vice president at The Rosen Group in Canada. “Without his efforts, YPAC might not exist,” said Gabdrakhmanova.

This summer Gabdrakhmanova was focused on being a project engineer on a team planning the proposed 560-mile Prince Rupert Gas Transmission Pipeline in northern British Columbia, while Tanchak, who previously had worked on pipeline/LNG proposals in Alaska, was helping Enbridge analyze how new pipelines could best be integrated in the company’s existing network over the next 10 years.

The Canadians see young engineers and other technical professionals moving from one company to another rather easily and frequently in today’s industry.

“Companies need to make more efforts to retain their professional employees,” said Gabdrakhmanova. “They need to ensure the young professionals are interested and challenged in their jobs.”

While YPAC President Gabdrakhmanova called the impending retirement of technical talent in the industry a “silver tsunami,” Tanchak, YPAC vice president, said not all of the graying engineers are leaving at once, and some individual companies are establishing six-month, post-retirement work assignments for the veterans to return and allow young professionals to “shadow” them for a few months at a time. Tanchak represents YPAC’s efforts with the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association (CEPA) Foundation to establish joint mentoring programs.

Cassandra Stacey, YPP’s treasurer and an operations engineer with Hilcorp Energy Co.’s midstream unit, Harvest Pipeline, received a lead for her latest job after golfing in The Woodlands with the president of the company. She was brought into YPP through Vieth, who encouraged her and others such as McMahan to join the new organization’s planning process.

“YPP’s main goals relate to networking and training, and bridging the generational gap which Patrick began talking about, and I was completely onboard,” said Stacey, who manages daily operations on privately held Harvest pipelines along the Texas Gulf Coast, including carrying responsibility for integrity management programs.

“I really want to develop a tight network, so for things beyond my expertise I can have others to turn to,” she said. “In metallurgy, for example, which isn’t a strong suit of mine, I want to be able to trust that another person can tell me what I need to know.”

While the U.S. young professionals spent the first half of 2015 on mostly organizational activities, creating an identity and structure, senior advisors like Vieth and Mike McGonagill are overjoyed by the YPP theme, which aims to prepare its members to accept the widely recognized “duty of care” for the pipeline industry. That duty is taken seriously throughout the ranks of the American pipeliners at all levels and skill sets.

“That is so powerful, it is exactly what they need to do,” said McGonagill, whose son, Colin, is a YPP vice president and an engineer with QStar LLC. “For the industry to thrive and grow there must be a new generation of leaders that will assume that duty of care,” he said, adding that the future industry will be nothing like the one he entered 40 years ago. He equates pipeliners’ obligation of caring to that of the oath of an airline pilot for passengers’ safety.

“Within this organization, I can tell you, there are the future John Kiefners of this world,” he said, referring to the well-known pipeline integrity technical expert. “We just don’t know who they are yet. They will nominate themselves in time. At least that’s what we hope for.”

YPP’s preamble to its organizing document describes the need for “technical networking with peers and industry leaders,” education through technical presentations and site visits, and the chance to develop “professional friendships.”

Vieth said time is short for “ensuring that we capitalize on transitioning the knowledge and experience from those leaving the industry to the young professionals.” He notes that “a disproportionately smaller portion” of the pipeline industry expertise is residing with those having 25 or fewer years of experience, many with five or less years. In other words, those approaching retirement may be less than 25% of the workforce, but represent about 75% of collective industry expertise.

What YPP, YPAC and other groups highlight is the essential need for “continuous learning and professional development, and also the responsibility that [young professionals] will undertake in progressing through their careers,” Vieth said. “I hope YPP provides an opportunity for the young professionals to develop leadership skills; these are just as important as learning how to manage and learning various technical aspects of our business.”

Colin McGonagill, the fourth-generation oil and gas worker whose great-grandfather he calls the original “fracker” because his job as a “shooter” involved placing nitroglycerin down the holes of drilling jobs, came to the YPP planning meeting last March at his father’s urging and ended up writing its governance documents.

For someone who earned a mechanical engineering degree from Purdue University less than six years ago and has a lifetime commitment to not follow in his father’s footsteps in the oil and gas space, McGonagill has amassed a variety of experiences in geothermal energy, waste heat recovery and with TAS Energy, a global innovator in packaged chilling and waste heat/geothermal energy solutions for utility and nonutility customers.

The TAS job brought him to Houston and then to ConocoPhillips as a project manager in the Eagle Ford play but the oil price crash eventually led to a layoff. Since April, he has been with the QStar startup that is busily buying up assets in the Permian, East Texas and New Mexico basins, backed by a $150 million commitment from Dallas-based EnCap Flatrock Midstream.

When he was talking to P&GJ McGonagill was assembling a presentation to his young company’s board.

“From a professional development perspective, I love what I am doing now,” he said. “It gives me a lot of exposure to more experiences which is good for me because I like organic experiences; I’ve never been the type who does well in a classroom.”

Vieth is confident the industry can attract, develop and retain technical professionals, but warns that it will require “a continued focus and investment.” He doesn’t think past approaches necessarily work anymore. Instead, he sees YPP becoming a cornerstone for developing innovative ways for young professionals to define their own professional development.

“One of the biggest differences compared to 25 years ago is the influence from all stakeholders, operators, regulators, special interest groups and the general public,” Vieth said. “While the technical standards and technologies used across the pipeline industry have advanced, there is a growing demand to communicate and defend [to the media and general public] the technical rigor in order to maintain the social license to operate.”

Collaboration is the key, said Mike McGonagill, his son, Vieth and others involved in YPP and YPAC. Today’s young professionals believe strongly in horizontal communications among peers.

“This is the Facebook stuff where they are communicating sideways all the times,” said the senior McGonagill. “My generation was very linear, up and down; the young professionals today are very horizontal.

“The new world that the industry is going into must have a level of collaboration like that. With many major pipelines over 50 years old in an environment of zero incidents, in a period of much closer government oversight, they are going to need each other, and that’s what I hope for.”

Richard Nemec is P&GJ’s Los Angeles-based contributing editor. He can be reached at: rnemec@ca.rr.com.


Senior advisors to the Young Pipeline Professionals include, from left, Garry Matocha- Spectra Energy; Patrick Vieth- Dynamic Risk USA; Mike McGonagill, Alliance Pipeline; Steve Koetting, ExxonMobil Pipeline; and Chris Yoxall- Rosen.

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