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Recruitment: March of the Millennials

How can the industry attract young, tech-savvy recruits to energy companies?

The energy industry has been preoccupied of late by how its besuited, grey-haired leaders should go about recruiting agile-minded, ambitious millennials. It's an industry that many potential young recruits perceive as staid at best, and quite possibly destined for decline.

The opinions of a panel of bright twenty-somethings at the FT Digital Energy Summit, all employed within the energy sector, provide insights into the recruitment challenges faced by the sector. The issue has become ever more critical, due to the increasing importance of digital skills and software development roles.

The familiar criticisms were all aired by the panel at the Summit in London. Large energy companieswhether on the production or power sideare perceived by young recruits working in them as too bureaucratic, too slow to change and with an overly rigid, hierarchical management structure. This stolid approach risked enervating rather than inspiring people who also have the option of working in the lively atmosphere of technology companies or industry start-ups. Technology companies and start-ups make up for what they lack in job security, through dynamism, challenging and innovative work, an unstuffy atmosphere and the personal touch provided by a flat leadership structure.

Panellists said a sense of purpose and an ability to actually make a difference is as valued, if not more so, than a safe career structure. In an era where zero hours contracts and here-today-gone-tomorrow start-ups are just a fact of life for graduates, energy companies need to do more to win them over, was the message.

That means companies need to offer graduates more than a superficially updated corporate profile. As Peter Halliwell, who joined Swindon-based Npower's graduate scheme five years ago put it: "You could say digital is: 'OK, we've got a fancy Instagram page, we've got a Facebook page, because it's going to attract young peoplebecause that's what young people like, isn't it?' But then you turn up and you've got a fixed desk, and you're in Swindon, at a power station and you can't work from home."

Halliwell voted with his feet and has now left the energy industry to work with a small analytics company. He says a high proportion of those who joined the company's graduate scheme at the same time as he did have since leftand he says their reasons go beyond pay and career growth to include location, impact and whether their work had any meaning within the context of the company.

However, the huge scale of the energy sector and the opportunities presented by its financial clout and global reach still count for something.

Chris Needham who has been with Shell for three years, saw energy as one of the few industries which presented an "almost limitless amount of interesting problems to try and solve" and a wide range of technical disciplines, not to mention the opportunity to travel. Thus far, he has found Shell receptive to his needs. He entered the company with a background in mechanical engineering and has now made the switch to digital analytics.

These views suggest energy firms may need to recreate the creativity of a nimble start-up ideas factory to keep talent they can then harness for their own development.

That won't rid the oil and gas industry of its imagejustified or notas a sunset industry and a polluting one to boot. But, here the oil companies may already be on the road to solving the problem by diversifying into areas which offer clear prospects of a career that outlasts hydrocarbons, especially for those with transferable skills, such as software development or information technology.

Pål Grønås Drange, who has been with Statoil for one-and-a-half years, acknowledges that working for an oil company, while at the same time being keen to help create a cleaner environment, requires a degree of cognitive dissonance. "But, we also see we can be part of the change," he said, noting that the company had just completed the 400MW-capacity Dudgeon wind farm off the UK coast, as part of its efforts to boost its renewable energy production.

However, a simpler way for energy companies to entice fresh talent may just be to try harder. Placing adverts and waiting for the applications to roll in may have worked to attract engineers in the past, but it isn't going to be as effective in attracting highly sought-after programmers and software developers today, when you are as likely to be in competition with Silicon Valley as well as other oil companies.

Drange, who has a background in electronics and mathematics, was approached by both Statoil and Google with a view to recruiting him, but Statoil offered him a job first, which he was happy to take. Energy companies need to be much more pro-active with their recruitment drives in universities and schools, he says.

A significant challenge for the non-millennials that lead energy firms will be to attract talented new recruits and keep them long enough that they can take over at the top when the time comes. It will be interesting to see how the industry will operate when that happens.

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