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Diversity in Energy: From the Classroom to the Boardroom

Presented by:

Hart Energy Diversity In Energy logo
Hart Energy Diversity In Energy logo

The oil and gas industry faced serious layoffs in 2020 due to the sharp collapse in oil prices caused by the pandemic. However, as it reached the latter half of 2021, the market had already recovered a significant amount. Even with price improvements, the shadow of COVID-19 still looms with multiple strains and variants threatening another shutdown. As a result, some companies are hesitant to make any big hires until the smoke clears.

However, with production already picking up momentum, companies will need to fill large roles, and many are looking to hire more diversely in terms of gender and ethnicity. Hiring employees of diverse gender and ethnicity is beneficial in two ways: it allows energy businesses to explore a previously untapped pool of talent that can be profitable to their team, and it satisfies investors concerned with a company’s ESG statistics.

Diversity in Energy - From the Classroom to the Boardroom - Austin Community College engineering student image
From chemical, civil, electrical and mechanical engineering, upon completion of Austin Community College courses, students will have a strong foundation to transfer and pursue a four-year degree. (Source: Austin Community College)

Even amid a global pandemic, community colleges and universities are preparing their students to enter the energy workforce pipeline by offering access to scholarships and internships, hosting companies at career fairs and collaborating with nonprofit organizations to provide a network to help them succeed.

Partnering with schools

The pandemic and subsequent 2020 energy market crisis put a freeze on many companies’ hiring processes. As those companies are moving toward recovery, many are looking to hire more diverse talent, namely more women and people of color.

Young professionals leaving school and entering the workforce for the first time are looking for anything to give them an edge in the highly competitive pool of candidates. In August 2021, GTI Energy created the role of director of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and appointed Amy Russell to the role to manage and implement DEI strategies for the company. The position’s creation signified the importance the company places on the social aspect of ESG regulations.

“Our goal is to [focus on] the communities in which we serve from a diversity perspective, and when I look at diversity, we view it in the broadest sense, thinking about all the different dimensions and layers of identity that make us who we are as an organization,” Russell said. “So we look for employees that are innovative and ambitious [with] great problem-solving capabilities and work well in a team environment. And when we say ‘work well on a team’ and a ‘team environment,’ we want to make sure that our employees are fostering relationships in a positive manner.”

Diversity in Energy - From the Classroom to the Boardroom - Amy Russell GTI Energy headshot

“Our goal is to [focus on] the communities in which we serve from a diversity perspective, and when I look at diversity, we view it in the broadest sense, thinking about all the different dimensions and layers of identity that make us who we are as an organization.” — Amy Russell, GTI Energy

Since the DEI director position was implemented, GTI has been working on partnering with schools to find more diverse talent. According to Russell, the company sees the value in seeking out talented individuals themselves, but the pandemic made things harder on their end. In addition, college representatives have mentioned that COVID restrictions have made it harder for them to host companies who want to recruit on their campuses.

Getting potential employers on campus has been difficult, despite social distancing restrictions lifting in some places, said Dr. Shasta Buchanan, vice president of student affairs with Austin Community College (ACC) in Texas.

“Even though we start opening our doors, that doesn’t mean the business or industry partner has allowed their employees to start recruiting again for jobs,” Buchanan said. “Being mindful of that and working with our business and industry partners when we are in that virtual environment space [and determining] how is that virtual information session more interactive, not just a talking head in a square.”

Diversity in Energy - From the Classroom to the Boardroom - Shasta Buchanan, Austin Community College headshot
Diversity in Energy - From the Classroom to the Boardroom - Shasta Buchanan, Austin Community College headshot

“We don’t want our students to feel inferior at all in that next chapter and space they’re going into. So it’s not just about the introduction of the university or the introduction of this particular company; it’s about what we do to make sure they feel like they have what they need to be successful in that environment.” On the Technical Track — Dr. Shasta Buchanan, Austin Community College

Despite delayed efforts, GTI is making progress toward their diversity college recruitment programs. GTI works closely with the Women’s Energy Network, posting job position openings on its website and co-sponsoring events with the network. The company also participated in the “Empowering Diversity in Clean Tech” pilot internship program led by the Clean Energy Leadership Institute.

Diversity in Energy - From the Classroom to the Boardroom - Austin Community College student training image
The manufacturing, automation and robotics technology specialization at Austin Community College trains students to install, operate, maintain and troubleshoot equipment used in manufacturing environments. (Source: Austin Community College)

“It was an intern program specifically designed to provide Black, indigenous and people of color students for the paid fulltime, 10-week intern programs,” Russell said. Then companies and organizations can actively build a diverse team and an inclusive work environment, she added.

With ESG influencing oil and gas companies’ spending decisions, many are following similar tactics to ensure a diverse workplace, amassing a larger pool of talent that will lead to more creative solutions for the future of energy.

‘Feeling of belonging’

While oil and gas companies may have stopped hiring as much due to the pandemic, community colleges and universities never stopped preparing their students to join the energy workforce. With a barrage of programs aimed at ensuring each one is ready, academically and socially, the schools do a great deal of work to showcase their students’ talents and skills.

For example, ACC implemented a tutoring program that gives students more one-on-one support. Tutoring is embedded into courses, which is especially helpful to those taking difficult STEM classes required to go into the energy industry.

“These student tutors become part of our faculty and staff, and I can really tell that they develop a strong sense of belonging, and they feel very valued as being part of the department,” said Dr. Alberto Quinonez, department chair of engineering technology with ACC. “In turn, they work with their fellow students [by] helping them with their studies, assignments [and] lab work. That’s one of the ways we tried to build more inclusion and more of a feeling of belonging with our students.”

Diversity in Energy - From the Classroom to the Boardroom - Alberto Quinonez Austin Community College headshot

“For our small department, we probably have one of the most diverse, if not the most diverse, faculty and staff in the college with regard to gender and ethnicity. That helps because when students show up, especially new students, they see us.” — Dr. Alberto Quinonez, Austin Community College

Austin, Texas, is removed from the traditional oil and gas businesses that prevail in Houston, but renewable energy companies are starting to populate the Hill Country. Quinonez explained that the school helps prepare students who want to stay in the area but also want to work in the energy industry for the energy revolution that is occurring in Austin and will likely continue as the U.S. puts more emphasis on clean energy.

“We do have a renewable energy program that educates and trains students to be technicians in that field, whether they go work for a solar installer or related business,” he continued. “Some go to work for utility companies in Austin. We have a municipality, so it’s Austin Energy. And some of the students have gotten jobs at Austin Energy, because Austin Energy has a renewable energy department.”

Diversity in Energy - From the Classroom to the Boardroom - Austin Community College engineering students image
Austin Community College engineering students have the option to co-enroll in the Texas A&M-Chevron Engineering Academy, which provides a direct path to transfer to one of the best engineering schools. (Source: Austin Community College)

Hands-on experience

Linda Head, senior associate vice chancellor of the division of external and employer relations with Lone Star College in Houston and surrounding areas, ensures that her students are prepared for the workforce by implementing a hands-on learning approach to the classes. In the same vein as ACC’s tutoring program, students that graduate from Lone Star with an associate’s degree or certificate are hirable candidates based on the skill set they cultivated in laboratories and small classes, allowing teachers to spend one-on-one time with each person.

“It’s not sitting in a lecture hall with 500 other people listening to lectures or listening to videos online; there’s something that you can apply and truly do,” Head said. “Our largest classes are about 30 students, so the professors know our students and guide them in a different way than when you’re in larger classrooms. Everywhere our professors can, they have something the students can do.”

In addition to smaller class sizes and hands-on laboratories, Lone Star College has other methods of preparing students for the energy workforce. The school stays connected with human resources officials at energy companies and hosts advisory councils with company officials to give students a more in-depth look at the specific career they want. Furthermore, the school incorporates internships into the curriculum, allowing students to get paid during the school year for doing something that pertains to the energy industry, while also giving them real-world experience in their chosen profession.

Diversity in Energy - From the Classroom to the Boardroom - Lone Star College-North Harris training image
Many industries need skilled workers who can transform and assemble materials into products. Lone Star College has a variety of specialized training areas for corporations with employees currently working or seeking a career in the mechanical, electrical, oil and gas, or automated (mechatronics) production industries. (Source: Lone Star College-North Harris)

“When I went to college, you worked on your bachelor’s degree [and] you did your internship at the end. I worked on my master’s degree; I did an internship at the end,” Head said. “[It’s] a different way of doing internships. You’re getting real world experience along the way.”

Prepped for the next chapter

Many schools also host career fairs to show students what the workforce has to offer. Colorado School of Mines holds these events to get students excited about different STEM fields they can pursue after graduation. Additionally, the school invites alumni to speak to students about what it’s like in the industries. According to Paul C. Johnson, president of the university, the school has close connections within the oil and gas industry due to the number of Mines alums who are “CEOs of the energy industry.”

“Our alums will come to campus, and they will talk about the jobs that they do in the companies that they work for in the energy industry,” Johnson said. “They’ll talk about their view of what the future is going to be and why they’re really excited about things. And so, the nice thing about Mines is we’ve got these really close industry connections. It’s pretty easy for them to invite people from the industry to come talk.”

Unfortunately, COVID has had a negative impact on these career fairs, as many of them were either canceled or pushed online. ACC’s Buchanan sympathizes with her students who are tired of doing everything for school online.

“They don’t mind online, but not minding it and wanting it 100% of the time are two different things,” she said.

As more and more businesses and campuses open up, she expects to see more of a return to traditional learning.

“Bringing the network into the student space early becomes very important,” Buchanan said. “When you think about diversity, you think about equity. We don’t want our students to feel inferior at all in that next chapter and space they’re going into. So it’s not just about the introduction of the university or the introduction of this particular company; it’s about what we do to make sure they feel like they have what they need to be successful in that environment.”

Reflective of the community

A company looking to diversify its workforce needs to be able to find suitable candidates at the schools from which it recruits. Therefore, schools are more inclined to help guide their students of different backgrounds to success and ensure that they feel included and welcomed.

“Big picture, our goal is for our campus to reflect the community that we serve,” Johnson said of Colorado School of Mines. “We would like to ultimately have the demographics of our campus reflect [the state of Colorado], and so we work pretty hard on making the institution look very attractive as a place to come and get a degree and launch a career. We also want it to be a place where a student can be very successful, no matter what background you come from.”

Diversity in Energy - From the Classroom to the Boardroom - Linda Head Lone Star College headshot

“When one of our students needs food, or is homeless, or just needs transportation money or daycare money, and those kinds of things, [we help them]. We reach out to students that might not be coming to us yet because maybe their parents didn’t go to college or don’t talk to them about college. Maybe their parents aren’t involved at all.” — Linda Head, Lone Star College

To Dr. Quinonez and his department, inclusion starts with the faculty and staff at ACC. Having women and professors of color to look up to as role models is beneficial for students, he explained.

“For our small department, we probably have one of the most diverse, if not the most diverse, faculty and staff in the college with regard to gender and ethnicity,” Quinonez said. “That helps because when students show up, especially new students, they see us.”

Quinonez said it helps when students see that faculty, staff and the student body share a diverse background as well as when students can relate to a faculty member or a staff member has a similar background as them.

Quinonez added, “We’re very diverse, and I’m very proud of that.”

Another way ACC supports its students of color is clustering them in similar classes through two programs: Black Representation of Achievement in Student Success (BRASS) for the school’s Black students and Ascender for the school’s Latinx students. Through the organizations, students are able to find support among one another.

“What our students of color have shared in those particular programs is that, because they’re clustered in those courses and then they have this learning community to come together later, it feels like they have an opportunity to just share and not feel judged because they’re speaking from a place of their culture,” ACC’s Buchanan said. “We didn’t want our Black student enrollment to decline, so this is an opportunity to bring community, and that’s exactly what students wanted. When your data show something, you take action and think about what you could really be doing differently to support our students.”

Diversity in Energy - From the Classroom to the Boardroom - Karen Horting Society of Women Engineers headshot

“Women are only 13% of the engineering workforce at this point, so still very much a minority. Being able to connect with other women in the field is very important.” — Karen Horting, Society of Women Engineers

At Lone Star College, Head knows that a diverse student body is attractive to those in the energy industry looking to recruit. Companies in the oil and gas industry like NOV and Baker Hughes, as well as other technology companies like Dell, have expressed interest in Lone Star students.

“A couple of reasons why they’re coming to community colleges like Lone Star in the larger open markets is we have a diverse student base,” Head said. “They realize that if they come to Lone Star College, we are about 47% Hispanic. We are about 17-18% African American. We are about 10% Asian. They are going to get a diverse student graduate base, so that’s part of why they want to work with us.”

She also understands that diversity doesn’t just pertain to a student’s gender or ethnicity. Lone Star has set up an initiative to work with nonprofit organizations in Houston to help low-income students. Chancellor Stephen C. Head recently hired Carlecia Wright as chief diversity officer for the school. Wright and Linda Head have been working to provide a support system to students who need more help financially.

“When one of our students needs food, or is homeless, or just needs transportation money or daycare money, and those kinds of things, [we help them],” Head continued. “We reach out to students that might not be coming to us yet because maybe their parents didn’t go to college or don’t talk to them about college. Maybe their parents aren’t involved at all.”

Diversity in Energy - From the Classroom to the Boardroom - Scientist consults with an engineer Shutterstock image
A scientist consults with an engineer as they connect a printed circuit board to a laptop and begin coding in a computer science research laboratory that develops robotic arm technology. (Source: Gorodenkoff/ Shutterstock.com)

Having support systems in place for diverse students ensures higher rates of success, which gives them opportunities and hope for starting a career in the energy industry.

Bridging the gap

As companies and schools continue their pursuit for more diverse talent, some have employed the services of nonprofit organizations to help connect them with a broader pool of candidates. Organizations such as the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) help fill the gap between college-educated students looking to get into the energy business and employers hoping to hire more women and candidates of diverse ethnicities.

Contrary to what the name implies, SWE is open to women and men in different STEM fields. The organization is focused on providing a link between school and the STEM workforce and offering scholarships, educational conferences and networking workshops.

“One of the things for young women is that they may not know someone who works in a particular industry, or maybe they think that they’re in a discipline that’s not appropriate for that industry,” said SWE CEO Karen Horting. “’Well...I’m not a petroleum engineer or I’m not a nuclear engineer, [so] what opportunities might there be in the energy industry for me?’ When those employers partner with a group like SWE, they’re able to connect with those students and showcase their employees. It gives their employees an opportunity to talk about what they do, to talk about the organization, to highlight that the organization does embrace diversity and inclusion and that they are looking for diverse talent.”

Diversity in Energy - From the Classroom to the Boardroom - Amy Landis Colorado School of Mines headshot

“Mines has the largest student section of SWE in the nation, so we are quite well known to SWE, and our students are very excited to participate in SWE.” — Amy Landis, Colorado School of Mines

With SWE, members are connected with mentors and role models to help guide their transition between school and the workforce. This networking opportunity provides a way for members to meet industry officials and gain access to jobs that will further their career. Since there are SWE sections across the world, the organization also creates a support system for members who move to a job in a new place.

“Women are only 13% of the engineering workforce at this point, so still very much a minority,” Horting said. “Being able to connect with other women in the field is very important, so I would say that network is the most important piece that we provide as an organization.”

She continued, “Some of our members talk about ‘I’ve never gotten a job outside of my SWE network. Every time I’ve made a career move, it’s been through my SWE network. Or I moved to a new city and I immediately connected with the local SWE section, and all of a sudden I have this great network of women in a new area.’ It’s an amazing community for any woman that’s working in engineering or technology.”

Colorado School of Mines first partnered with SWE in 1968 and now has more than 800 members in its section.

“Mines has the largest student section of SWE in the nation, so we are quite well known to SWE, and our students are very excited to participate in SWE,” said Amy Landis, presidential faculty fellow for diversity, inclusion and access at Colorado School of Mines.

At Mines, SWE has helped connect students to internships and jobs as well as to each other. Through workshops and retreats, the organization has made the transition between school and a career in the energy industry easier.

Diversity in Energy - From the Classroom to the Boardroom - Paul Johnson Colorado School of Mines headshot

“Energy is this great topic that I think [is] fascinating for students going to college these days because there are just so many ways in which you can get involved.” — Paul Johnson, Colorado School of Mines

Landis recalled the time an underrepresented, junior-year student approached the SWE faculty adviser raving about the connections she made at SWE.

“[The student] said, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve had so much trouble making friends and making connections at Mines,’” Landis said. “She said that at SWE, ‘I’m so glad I finally got into a SWE leadership role because these women are so amazing, and I feel like I finally found my people and my friends.’ It was just so heartwarming that SWE does that for our students.”

SWE is one of many global organizations that exist to help connect institutions, students and the workforce and provide helpful resources along the way. As oil and gas companies flesh out their plans to comply with ESG regulations and meet ESG goals, these kinds of organizations will become increasingly valuable in helping companies find new talent.

On the same page

Based on how schools are supporting their students and encouraging them to succeed in the energy field, it looks like the future of the industry could become more reflective of the population it serves.

“We do attract a lot of students who come to Mines because we have this specialty and this great reputation in the energy field,” Johnson said. “What helps us as well is I think this generation of students going to college is very much interested in tackling big thematic problems. So energy is this great topic that I think [is] fascinating for students going to college these days because there are just so many ways in which you can get involved. What we’re all having to deal with is what’s the future of energy.”