By Menan Khater

Following the beginning of production from Zohr natural gas field and the historic agreement with Israel, the oil and gas industry in Egypt is going through a prosperous phase. In order to sustain the country’s achievements and meet the government’s expectations of turning Egypt into an energy hub, the Egyptian petroleum sector requires more technical engineers with practical experience. For this matter, activities that allow students to break the academic routine and prepare them for the job market have become common.

Although national and international oil companies often take the initiative to promote this kind of programs, anticipating the market’s challenges has been a major concern for engineering faculties and students. In Egypt, the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) sets the example as a strong student organization that addresses the young professionals’ needs to fit the market, through which a great amount of students gain technical experience and find job opportunities. However, students and professors also point out the need to change the education system in order to provide the new generation of petroleum engineers with more assertive skills.

Conventional Education

Closing the gap between education and practice in order to enhance young professionals’ skills often means breaking with conventional methods of education. “Students get the basic technical knowledge during their university study, but in order to land a job in the sector, there should be more training opportunities in the field,” Dr. Mahmoud Abu El-Ela, Professor of Petroleum Engineering at Cairo University, told Egypt Oil & Gas. “The only thing that needs to be developed [in the faculty’s education program] is the training… there should be more training opportunities,” he added.

Students at governmental universities are particularly dissatisfied with the level of practical training and overall teaching methods. “To get a good grade, I have to follow blindly what the professor asks me to do. It is not about my mentality or skills. If I were to use a different method than the academic textbook, even though it might be valid practically, my grades would be deducted drastically,” said Mohamed Yasser, a third-year Student at Faculty of Petroleum Engineering at Suez University.

Yasser, who travels about 137 km from his home to attend his lectures in the upscale neighborhood of Heliopolis to Suez University, said he preferred to join this campus specifically despite the distance. The level of education did not meet his expectations, however, despite Suez being the most prestigious public university for petroleum engineering.

“The first time I got to learn a major-related subject was in my third semester,” he said. “The technical subjects, such as logs, are only in the 4th year, which means if I got any training opportunities earlier, I would not be able to fully benefit from it.”

However, the situation differs from one governmental university to another. “Unlike other governmental universities like Suez and Cairo, we study more general subjects,” Awad El-Badran, a senior student in the Faculty of Petroleum Engineering at Azhar University, told Egypt Oil & Gas. “We do not just depend on specialization, such as drilling… we get a more comprehensive overview on things, and this qualifies us better than other graduates,” he stated. “The only drawback is that university labs need to be developed,” El-Badran noted.

Due to the lack of internships, many graduates must learn additional skills that might not be entirely related to their academic knowledge in order to land an internship.

“Some private companies’ announcements require only students from AUC [American University in Cairo]. Even though I have excellent grades, so far I cannot enter the company,” Zakaria Abdelfattah, third-year student in the Faculty of Petroleum Engineering at Cairo University, and team leader at the Society of Petroleum Engineers, told Egypt Oil & Gas.

“When I tried once to propose an official training request for Cairo University students to one of the private oil companies, an employee responded helplessly that they receive hundreds of applications annually, only from third-year students,” Abdelfattah explained. “You could try to get a recommendation letter from an employee in order to get an opportunity for the next training group,” he quoted the employee as saying.

Creativity Outlet

The Society of Petroleum Engineers, an international non-profit organization comprising a network of students, young professionals, and veterans in the industry, provides opportunities to students to participate in extra-curricular activities to enhance their post-university career prospects.

SPE has different chapters in Egyptian universities, where hundreds of students apply to join every year. The organization is seen by students as a way to help them stand out and keep pace with the oil and gas industry’s rapidly-changing landscape.

Becoming a separately incorporated organization in 1985, SPE aims to collect, disseminate, and exchange technical knowledge concerning the exploration, development and production of oil and gas resources and related technologies for the public benefit. By 2014, SPE’s network reached 124,000 people, according to their official website. The organization also provides opportunities for professionals to enhance their technical and professional competence.

“SPE provides both technical and non-technical sessions, trainings, and field trips,” Abdelfattah, SPE Cairo University President, said. “In the petroleum sector, everyday there is a new update, new tool, new technique, our role is to bring people all the most recent updates that they would never learn about in university,” he noted.

“Meanwhile, the non-technical sessions aim to improve the students’ soft skills in order to encourage companies to hire them,” Abdelfattah further stated. At least 150 people apply every year, not all of them are studying petroleum engineering. The team includes multiple disciplines of engineers, geologists, scientists, marketers, and administrators.

“The structure of the team itself is divided as corporates. We have HR, marketing, sales, and they have top managers. This enables the students to learn as well the workflow inside companies,” Abdelfattah explained.

Besides the technical and non-technical sessions, SPE Azhar University team provides a community service. “The second branch is the community. We organize field visits to hospitals, cancer patients, schools etc.,” El-Badran, SPE Azhar President, said. The turnout in applications for the current academic year was 90 students from multiple disciplines, El-Badran noted.

When he first joined SPE Suez team, Yasser was tasked with participating in and preparing a magazine related to sector updates. The following year he was responsible for the entire magazine. “Despite our lack of resources and few members, we received a positive feedback and this motivated me to apply this year as a president,” Yasser said.

“After I was elected, it felt like a huge responsibility in order to meet the team’s expectations, but we managed to upscale SPE Suez’s impact in an unprecedented way,” he said. “This year, the magazine was sponsored by three companies and was distributed during the Egypt Petroleum Show (EGYPS 2018),” Yasser explained.

Regarding the technical knowledge, Yasser said that “we managed to get a license to operate a smaller version from a software used in one of the IOCs, to be accessed and used by our students in the labs.”

SPE teams typically organize panel discussions by CEOs to talk about the changing industry, and they try as well to organize training opportunities for a number of members that are carefully selected. In Cairo University, for instance, there are partially-funded exchange programs abroad.

While SPE does not directly send students to participate in private sector internships, it empowers them with needed skills and background to fit the competitive nature of those internships. “It helps the students gain a wide range of skills, such as advertising, marketing, conference and event management,” Dr. Abu El-Ela said.

Turning Point

While attending a lecture on an advanced technique, Abdelfattah interacted with the professor and demonstrated that he had already learned about the topic through his work with SPE. “The professor was impressed to see me familiar with enhanced oil recovery,” he said, noting that the technical sessions focus on how things work from the industry’s perspective, while providing insider tips.

This year, Abdelfattah landed his first job at a shadowing opportunity at Schlumberger. “There was a competition organized by the company asking the participants to submit a field development plan. My experience in SPE culminated in this competition… It helped me create a strong and diverse team, besides the technical background… We won second place,” he said.

For Yasser, his experience with SPE equipped him with solid communication skills. In addition, he booked himself a spot for an internship with ADES, a prestigious drilling company. “One of the main reasons I got accepted was because the interviewer was a former student activity member, so this helped the company understand my potential,” Yasser said. “I also consider myself lucky to join an internship related to drilling as it is one of the hardest subjects in my university,” he added.

Whereas, the most useful gain for Awad was the network. Despite being a senior, he did not manage yet to get a training opportunity. However, he asserts that there is a significant difference between him and other colleagues after joining SPE, especially in terms of the professional network and technical knowledge.

“The thing that was useful most is the network with industry people, companies and engineers. Additionally, there is an obvious difference between me and people who did not join SPE and used to think it is a waste of time. When someone discusses a topic, I respond and interact. Other students ask me to build their CV,” he said. “As a senior, I am now reassured that my past years in SPE were not in vain.”

The students’ experience in SPE exemplifies the game changing potential that these organizations have in the entire oil gas industry, as it brings a new generation of highly capacitated employees and decision makers. It further enables students to acknowledge the real needs of the market and accordingly address them within their universities, inspiring the most needed changes to enhance education in Egypt’s engineering faculties.