Five days before the start of the COP26 climate conference, the University of Oxford’s geography department emailed students inviting them to a career conference at energy company Royal Dutch Shell. Staff at the Oil and Gas Major are reportedly providing answers to students’ questions and information on their plans to become a net zero emissions company, according to the message.
There was nothing particularly unusual about the recruiting language, but within 10 hours the university had received a letter of complaint signed by 71 students.
By sharing the invitation, the geography department was backing Shell as a “great place to work” despite its continued investments in hydrocarbons and allegations of its historical links to associated abuses, according to the letter viewed by the Financial Times. The students demanded that fossil fuel companies be banned from such “advertisements”. The geography department told the FT that it circulated the invitation at the request of a former student and that by transmitting information, it did not necessarily approve of its content.
The oil and gas industry is not alone in facing opposition on college campuses, and the letter’s signatories do not represent the views of all students. Nonetheless, the incident highlights a lingering challenge for supermajors as they compete to recruit the talent they need to pivot to a greener future.
All the major European oil companies have defined strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including those from fuels burned by their customers, to net zero by 2050. For example, BP aims to have acquired or built 20 GW of renewable energy capacity by 2025 and 50 GW by 2030..
But achieving those goals requires recruiting and retraining on a scale never seen before in the industry, and at a time when many potential recruits remain in conflict over the role oil and gas companies want to play.
“The oil and gas industry cannot be the one leading the energy transition. . . because it won’t be a just transition, ”says Fergus Green, a physics and philosophy graduate who left Oxford last year and now works for the People & Planet student campaign network, which is leading an initiative to shut down the industry. to recruit in university career departments.
BP has some 63,000 employees worldwide and Shell more than 80,000. In both cases, the majority are still employed in fossil fuel-related jobs. This balance will need to change quickly over the next decade for companies to achieve their goals.
“The biggest challenge in the energy transition is not financial capital, it’s human capital,” says an industry veteran, who recently left a European oil major after more than 20 years.
BP, which laid out plans for one of the industry’s most ambitious corporate overhauls last year, says the transformation is already underway. Since launching its new strategy, BP has hired more than a dozen external candidates for management positions involved in the transition, including Anja-Isabel Dotzenrath, the former CEO of RWE Renewables, who is expected to lead its gas business. and low carbon from March. 2022.
“Our net zero ambition is attracting more people to BP than ever before,” said Mikel Jauregi, senior vice president of people and culture at BP. This year Jauregi announced 200 positions in BP’s new hydrogen and offshore wind activities and received more than 10,000 external applications. A comparable recruitment drive in the oil and gas division 10 years ago may have sparked “a tenth” of that level of interest, he added.
BP, like its peers, is working hard to change its image, especially on social media platforms like Instagram and professional sites like LinkedIn, where CEO Bernard Looney has over 125,000 followers and regularly engages with commentators. .
“We don’t overthrow a 112-year-old business overnight, but. . . we’re doing whatever a company like ours needs to do to be part of the solution, ”Looney said in a recent TV interview now quoted on his LinkedIn calendar.
After five or six years when recruiting graduates has become more difficult, BP believes that its new message is reaching students, although some resistance persists. A BP spokesperson said demand for graduate jobs, apprenticeships and student internships increased 75% between 2019 and 2020.
One employee, who graduated over the past 10 years, said BP’s continued reliance on oil and gas profits was “a psychological barrier” that new hires had to be prepared to accept, but that she had seen real opportunities to influence the pace. of the energy transition.
“I saw it as an energy company, not an oil and gas major, from the start,” she says, asking not to be identified. “[For me] it was about this global presence, serving the customer and being at the forefront of developing energy solutions.
Shell, which recently completed an 18-month reorganization known internally as Project Reshape, told the FT it was on track to recruit 1,400 people into its core energy transition activities in 2021. It receives typically “a high volume” of applications for each position and 18 million visits to the careers section of its website each year, he added.
But while the need to overhaul the global energy system means there has arguably never been a more interesting time to join the industry, this transition has also brought more competition. Oil majors, utilities, renewable energy groups and private equity firms all compete for green skills that are in short supply.
“There is clearly a war for talent in renewable energy,” says Dotzenrath, the new CEO of BP, who stressed that niche expertise in areas such as wind turbines and blade design is particularly in demand. . “There are maybe a few handfuls of people in the world who really understand this. “
This competition has driven up wages and forced old oil and gas companies to rethink.
“This is a competitive and dynamic market, and to attract the best talent, a competitive package is not enough, you have to have a credible and meaningful strategy and show how people can make a difference,” says Ronan Cassidy, Shell Human Resources Director. and corporate officer.
In February, BP launched a new share ownership plan, which gave every employee, from pump clerks in South Africa to drilling engineers in Azerbaijan, a stake in the company. While current and former BP employees have told the FT the move was welcome, other industry watchers question whether supermajors are culturally agile and enterprising enough to retain employees who can choose from. the opportunities of the fast growing green economy.
“We were regularly losing younger staff to more entrepreneurial-type companies,” says the industry veteran, who was part of a low-carbon division of one of the supermajors before he left. “It was almost an in, an out.”
Last year, several clean energy executives left Shell shortly before the company announced its new strategy, with a person at the time telling the FT that the company’s ‘culture’ had to change. to succeed.
Stuffed with cash from this year’s record oil and gas prices, Shell, BP, France’s TotalEnergies and Italy’s Eni have the financial resources to lead the energy transition if they get the support of their shareholders. The bigger question is whether they can attract and retain the staff they need to carry out their plans.
“Our strategy is where we need it,” says the BP employee. “But people at the start of their careers want to see tangible results very quickly, and they tend to be impatient.”