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Regardless of the opportunities offered by the oil and gas industry, when recruiting talent it is unlikely that people reflect on the rich variety of possibilities.

Take, for example, the development of the world's most powerful supercomputer for commercial research by oil and gas major BP. The popular image of an industry of oily workers doesn't match with the critical role that technology plays in delivering hydrocarbon fuels.

However, surveys show that millennials — the cohort of 20 to 35-year-olds, now becoming the largest sector of the US workforce — tend to regard oil and gas as sunset industries and tend to shy away from them.

Positives and Negatives

An often-quoted survey published by McKinsey in 2016 concludes, "Millennials don't just want personal career growth; they expect to make a positive contribution to society. However, 14 percent of millennials say they would not want to work in the oil and gas industry because of its negative image — the highest percentage of any industry."

It doesn't help that oil and gas are perceived to be major contributors to climate change — nor that they are cyclical businesses with a poor record of retaining engineering talent when boom turns to bust. When oil prices crashed in 2014, the industry laid off an estimated 440,000 people as it scrambled to slash costs in the face of plunging revenues.

There is also the issue of safety. The damage wrought to the wildlife and coasts around the Gulf of Mexico by the Deepwater Horizon accident in 2010 was vast and unforgettable.

Creative Thinking

Such perceptions on the part of millennials and Generation Z constitute a major challenge to the future of the oil and gas business. A PwC report on 2017 Oil and Gas Trends cautions, "Oil and gas companies need to engage with these recent graduates because they can provide the new ideas that will make the future easier to navigate."

The industry needs creative thinking, given the multiple uncertainties that lie ahead as everyone grapples with climate change, to enable it to fulfill its role of meeting the world's need for energy. More importantly, these perceptions are a challenge to human society, which will remain dependent on oil and gas for much of its energy — and petrochemical products such as plastics — for decades to come.

The speed of the energy transition to a lower-carbon world has thrown us many surprises. But the consensus of the major forecasters is clear — while renewable energy sources, battery storage, electric vehicles and other new energy technologies are growing rapidly, global energy demand continues to grow alongside it. It will be decades before the world is able to wean itself away from oil and gas.

Gas: To Be the Biggest Fuel?

Our long-term dependence on fossil fuels is highlighted in the latest World Energy Outlook to 2040 from the International Energy Agency. Even in a scenario where governments put in place policies that keep global warming within the 2°C limit in the historic Paris Agreement, we depend on fossil fuels for more than three-fifths (or 61 percent) of our primary energy needs.

It is clear that the success of the oil and gas industry in recruiting talent and retaining that talent matters to us all. But how should the industry be going about it?

A Different Lens

The challenge is partly about promoting accurate perceptions of the role the oil and gas industry plays within society, and what a career in the industry involves. But it is also about the industry adapting to the aspirations of millennials, who tend to see work through a different lens than their baby boomer parents.

The years since the oil crash of 2014 have been painful, but the industry has worked hard to adapt and the break-even cost of producing a barrel of oil or a cubic meter of gas has fallen dramatically. Sentiment has improved and the specialist recruitment agencies that focus on oil and gas are increasingly optimistic.

"After a very challenging couple of years, our view reflects a cautious optimism for the future among energy employers," says Rory Ferguson, CEO of Petroplan.

A survey of thousands of employers and workers conducted by NES Global Talent and the job board, Oil and Gas Job Search, showed that overall workers value salary, career opportunities, job security and work-life balance.

But McKinsey and PwC argue that the priorities of millennials may not reflect this overall picture. "Oil and gas companies may need more profound changes to meet demands for meaningful work and social responsibility to attract the next generation of top engineering and leadership talent," says McKinsey.

"Millennials will constitute a majority of the US workforce by the early 2020s and have already started their climb into management and even executive roles. 'Digital natives' in the driver's seat will bring their own expectation of technology, collaboration, pace and accountability."