Soft Skills In The Oil Patch

In the Canadian oil patch, new research shows, petroleum geoscientists, need more than highly technical geological, geophysical and computer skills to succeed.

They need people skills.

Dr. Chris Heath, a geoscientist who conducts research for the Canadian petroleum industry, studied 24 Canadian and 38 American oil companies with anywhere from 5000 to over 70,000 employees worldwide. He asked exploration and senior executives, exploration managers, chief scientists, practicing scientists and others, to rank the skills that the energy companies most want petroleum geoscientists to possess. Heath studied geoscientists because they are important to the success of the petroleum industry – they find and help extract the oil.

Heath found that while expertise in the geosciences naturally ranked most highly, non-technical abilities, such as the ability to work on teams, being enthusiastic and a good communicator, were important overall – ranking ahead of computer skills as most desired by oil petroleum execs.

Soft-skills are highly prized because geoscientists are often required to work in foreign settings as a result of globalization. As Canadian oil reserves are being used up, and new ones more costly to find, exploration around the world is important. Geoscientists need to cope well with different living conditions, cultural values and ways of doing business when working overseas. Heath notes that even minor misunderstandings between a petroleum company and its international partners can have negative effects on business – souring relations or jeopardizing deals.

Based on his findings, Heath advises geoscientists to develop some or all of the top non-technical attributes most desired by Canadian oil companies including:

1. Drive, Energy, Enthusiasm
The petroleum industry values geoscientists with a “go-getter”nature. Canadian companies seem to value plucky staff. A gung-ho attitude is infectious and “recently graduated geoscientists may not have lots of practical experience, but being keen can make up for a lack of years in the industry,” said Heath.

2. Creativity
Canadian oil employers want geoscientists with a creative streak. Generating unique ideas and solutions demonstrates intellectual flexibility and the courage to be somewhat unconventional. “Geoscientists [must] use their imaginations when faced with very little evidence and incomplete data” to cope with the creative, intuitive side of exploring for oil, said Heath recently. He observed that creative people, who help the industry come up with new ways to compete globally, would be rewarded with career advancement.

3. Initiative
Showing initiative at work means not waiting for someone else to do something. Staff who are willing to be counted on are a desirable resource in a competitive climate. The industry values those with the gumption and flexibility to generate novel ideas, push them through to fruition and remain buoyed and energized throughout.

4. Desire to Achieve, Willingness to Learn
Ambition and a desire to set and achieve goals are highly sought after, non-technical attributes, says Heath. Geoscientists who are hungry for excellence in their field and are willing to maintain high standards and expectations will do well. Along with the motivation to achieve results, an interest in learning new skills and a healthy curiosity are highly prized abilities. Heath said, “The industry does not want arrogant, know-it-alls” on its payroll.

5. Teamwork, Commitment, Interpersonal Skills
Canadian companies considered teamwork to be within the top 20 non-technical attributes they desired. The ability to collaborate, debate, and contribute on a team was deemed valuable. Petroleum employers want committed personnel with a solid ability to work effectively with others. Interpersonal skills such as empathy, listening, and non-defensive communication are especially important to geoscientists who are increasingly required to work on multidisciplinary teams. “They need to be motivated to understand what each team member is talking about”, says Heath. Staff that can work together effectively and handle issues that arise are valued by petroleum companies who must continually find a competitive edge.

6.Critical Thinking and Oral Communication
The ability to look at a company initiative, system, idea or project critically, identify gaps, flaws and potential problems before they arise is another item on the oil industry’s soft-skill wish list. Along with this analytical capability, the companies valued clear oral communication. Being able to speak clearly, succinctly and persuasively is valued. Oil execs want scientists who can present themselves and their ideas concisely and effectively.

7. Ethics
Heath observes that technical skills did not bring Enron down. It was the unethical behaviour of the company’s top executives that led to the energy corporation’s demise. It’s little wonder that ethics and integrity command a position in the oil industry’s “must have” list. Handling issues from bribery, to failing to respect company confidentiality or dealing inadequately with sensitive information require ethical awareness.

8. Analytical Ability, Ability to Cope with Stress
The ability to assess a situation, understand it and the underlying mechanisms at play, is an important soft-skill. Without analytical abilities, staff may miss opportunities, try only stereotypical solutions to problems and be satisfied with partial answers. Oil employers considered the capacity to deal with stress as equally important as analytical skills. They saw a healthy lifestyle, a balanced work/family life, the ability to keep calm in tense situations, and managing fear and anxiety well, as ideal on-the-job abilities, especially when geoscientists often have to adapt in new cultures and workplaces.

9. Self Management
The companies studied highlighted self-control as an admirable attribute. Being self-directed is an asset in any business, but staff who know what makes them tick and when they are more likely to over-react or under-perform, for personal reasons (e.g., fatigue may cause irritability in one worker and hyper behaviour in another), are a real asset. The industry wants staff to stay current, take courses and value accountability.

Given his conclusions, Heath recommends universities, petroleum companies and geoscientists consider investing time and resources into mentoring programs, ethics training, teamwork, and interpersonal and personal effectiveness programs to give Canadian companies a competitive edge on the world stage.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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