By Matthew Hoare

The gap between the skills learned by Egyptian students and the real-world demands of the private sector is not a new phenomenon. The problem has been a recurring subject of discussion among industry experts and is particularly pronounced in technical areas such as petroleum engineering that require students to undergo time and resource-intensive training in order to develop the necessary skills.

Although it is the responsibility of universities to equip their students with the technical knowledge necessary to flourish in the industry, real-world experience is arguably of equal importance in promoting the development of individuals’ practical skills. Temporary work experience placements and internship programs in the private sector could therefore be critical in helping to address the gap that exists between education and employment.

The Benefits of Workplace Experience

A 2010 report published by the Organization for Economic and Cooperation and Development (OECD) provides a detailed breakdown of the benefits of workplace training for students and private sector employers. The OECD argues that real-world experience is actually more effective in helping to develop both the hard and the soft skills of students.

The development of hard, technical skills is particularly relevant in a technology-driven profession such as petroleum engineering, in which rapidly-evolving technology causes knowledge and practical techniques to change and become obsolete.

However, universities may not have the ability to continuously update their equipment, and in-house staff may not always be able to keep on top of every innovation in the industry. In comparison, private sector companies are more likely to have access to the latest cutting-edge technologies and employ specialists that are able to train new staff on how to use them. National oil companies (NOCs) and international oil companies (IOCs) are therefore better positioned to educate students in this area.

Students also benefit from the experience of using soft skills learned in the classroom and applying them in real-life situations. This helps students transition their skills such as communication and time-management from the classroom into the professional environment, and helps them adjust to the demands of working life when it is time for them to seek employment.

From the perspective of the private sector, there are both productivity and recruitment benefits to be gained by offering work experience placements and internships. Firstly, companies stand to benefit from the productivity of having trainees and students working temporarily for the company. Longer placements will produce the biggest productivity benefits for companies; not only because of the length of time, but because the value of the individual’s contribution will increase as they become more experienced and their skills improve.

Secondly, employers gain an advantage over their competitors by being able to select promising young talent from among the pool of trainees hosted by the company. Viewing trainees as potential future employees provides an incentive to employers to emphasize the training and development of the individual, rather than looking at them as a source of cheap labor.

The Current Landscape

Currently, both IOCS and NOCs provide workplace opportunities to young engineers and technicians. These take the shape of either graduate schemes or internships targeted at students still pursuing their bachelor’s degrees. Some companies design their work experience schemes specifically for Egyptian students, while others open applications to international students. Programs targeted at Egyptian students are more likely to address the current concerns of the domestic industry, whereas international schemes, given the far broader demographic, are unlikely to have as big of an impact on the skills gap.

Shell Egypt’s ‘Early Year Internship’ program provides non-graduates an option to gain first-hand experience of working within a major IOC, while Total Egypt offers a three-month training program for Egyptian undergraduate students. Apache likewise invites undergraduate students to submit a resume and apply for an internship with the company. Workplace programs are also available at certain Egyptian NOCs; the Petroleum Projects & Technical Consultations Company (Petrojet) hosts a summer training program for undergraduates each year, while Egyptian LNG’s Fresh Graduate Program provides a two-year internship that offers an extended opportunity for students to enhance their practical skills.

Several companies also run programs designed to educate engineering graduates in the business, economic, and managerial aspects of a company. ENI’s Scuola Enrico Mattei, for instance, runs a Master Degree in Management and the Economics of Energy and the Environment (MEDEA) open to international students specializing in technical, scientific, and economic fields. The program offers two paths for students to take depending on their specialisms: the ‘managing technical assets’ path trains technical and scientific students in logistical and operational areas while the ‘global energy’ path is targeted at graduates of business engineering and business economics, and focuses on managerial aspects of the industry.

Ayman Elbendary, a reservoir engineer at Italian oil company ENI, took part in the MEDEA program following his completion of a five-year engineering undergraduate degree at Suez Canal University. During this degree – which encompassed drilling, reservoir, and petroleum engineering – he was able to complete three different internships with Belayim Petroleum Company (Petrobel) and Oasis Petroleum Company (Oapco). This consisted of a one-month obligatory summer internship sponsored by the university followed by two extracurricular placements. He told Egypt Oil & Gas that getting a first-hand look into the day-to-day workings of an oil company was an important experience for him. “I saw how people worked, I saw the water injection plant, how they were treating water… During [the third internship] I was able to see the pumps, the troubleshooting process.”

While Elbendary managed to gain experience in several companies during his degree, some industry figures believe that undergraduates do not have enough opportunities to put the theory into practice during their time at university. Engineer Osama Halim, Halliburton’s area manager for Egypt and Libya, told Egypt Oil & Gas that “young professionals lack practical application of their theoretical studies in university.” For Halim, this is where workplace experience comes in. “[The lack of practical application] can be offset with structured internships and summer programs,” he says.

Halim, however, says that the presence of a gap between education and practice is normal. This is because the primary role of a university is to provide students with a grasp of the theoretical basics. It is when students enter employment in the private sector that theory can be transitioned into the development of practical skills. Elbendary echoes Halim’s observations. “Universities just give you the foundations, the basics of engineering,” he said.

Making Work Experience More Effective

While there may always be a gap between students’ experiences in university and the realities of the private sector, there are still ways in which internships can be made more effective in giving students the practical knowledge they need to succeed in the industry.

Halim suggests a number of ways in which the private sector can engage with undergraduates in order to ease their transition into the workplace. They can “sponsor graduation and research projects, encourage internships and conduct technical sessions”. Instead of one-time internships, Halim says that work placements should take place over an extended time period and involve intensive training programs. Furthermore, these programs “should be specially designed with ample commitment for offline projects… this would enable a comprehensive evaluation and assessment” by the host company.

There may also be a need to rethink, not just the structure and availability of internships, but their pedagogical focus as well. Asked how work placements may be improved for future students, Elbendary says that there should be more focus on working with computer systems; in particular software used for data processing and analysis. “I had big trouble with this,” he admits. “It would be better if students were taught more about big data.” Given the rapid development of new technologies and information systems and the limited resources of some universities, data processing and analytics may prove to be an important area for increased private sector involvement.

The responsibility for improving work experience opportunities does not just land on the shoulders of the private sector, however. There must be effective collaboration between the private sector, government bodies and universities – both public and private – if significant changes are to be made. The current levels of coordination between these sectors is “definitely lacking”, according to Halim. When asked about his prescriptions, he urges the private sector and universities to “engage in one-on-one dialogue to design the internship processes and programs”. While he acknowledges that this process will require commitment from all parties, it must be achievable if the current workplace system is to improve.