By Omnia Farrag
For petroleum engineering fresh graduates, the career choices they make do not only affect their career path, but also their lifestyle. Going for a field-based job means having to spend long periods in remote fields with minimum level of living facilities, long shifts, and stressful working environments. This work/life balance was one out of three main reasons why petroleum workers quit their jobs, according to the 2013 Global Retention Survey by RIGZONE.
“I was excited for the first couple of months, then felt frustrated for another couple of months, and then I started to work on figuring out how to get adapted to rigs life. Yet, every day I am still thinking whether I should continue in this career or not.”
This is how M.A., junior field engineer at one of the international oil companies (IOCs) operating in Egypt, described his experience of working on rigs to Egypt Oil & Gas. The phone interview with M.A. was interrupted many times due to the weak connection on his side as he was on an offshore rig in the Mediterranean. No surprise that he pointed out to the lack of proper communication method as one of the challenges he faces as a field engineer. After talking more about rigs life with field engineers, communication issues sounded to be a minor challenge compared to other working conditions.
Most Challenging Conditions
“Sometimes there is no caravans to sleep in. The food sometimes is not good, but you have to eat to have the energy to work. It is a completely different lifestyle from living in my house,” Omar Osama, field engineer at an IOC, explained to Egypt Oil & Gas.
“The work is really tough and demanding, so even if there is no place to sleep, I’ll just sleep in a chair,” M.A echoed Osama.
Ola Hussein, field engineer at another IOC, agreed with Osama’s statement regarding the difficulty of finding a place to sleep in. The situation is more difficult for her considering that, sometimes, she is the only female in the site. “Female engineers usually face this problem of not finding a place to sleep in. Places are already limited on the rigs, but since I am sometimes the only female in the site, my workmates have to leave a whole caravan, which accommodates three to four people, for me as there is no individual caravans,” Hussein added.
Working hours is another challenge that field engineers face. “I have to be alert at any moment during the whole period I spend on the rig, which varies from few days to a week. I almost don’t sleep during this period,” Hussein said.
“My work is shift based. My shift is 12 hours; however, if the workload is heavy I work for more hours. In such situations, I might sleep for couple of hours after my 12-hour shift and then continue working. But there are some days with lighter workload as well,” said M.A.
Field engineers have to deal with heavy equipment, sensitive tools, and giving instructions to workers. These aspects of the field work represent another challenge to fresh graduate engineers.
“The field work sometimes requires physical work that I cannot do while my male counterparts can do easily. At first, this was really challenging for me, but then I felt okay to say that I cannot do this on my own and I need workers to do the physical part for me,” Hussein said.
Hussein described being a female is the most challenging part of her field work. This becomes more evident when she has to give instructions to workers. “You really have to have strong personality and balance between being bossy and being weak to get male workers who are older and more experienced than you follow your instructions,” she added.
The rigs blue-collar workers are not necessarily educated; however, some of them have been doing this work for years. This makes it challenging for the young engineers to give them instructions on how to follow new techniques.
“Sometimes, individuals in the field would say that following the safety instructions makes things more complicated and time consuming. This might be true; however, following the safety measure saves lives, which is what you cannot compensate,” Osama said. “It is really hard to convince a 60-year old worker that what you need to do things differently or to do something new,” Hussein echoes Osama.
For Osama, giving instructions to workers is the most challenging part. “Being responsible for the workers you work with is something new for me. It fits my personality and it is not difficult for me; yet, it stresses me more than what I have expected,” Osama said.
Preparation for Field Work
Doing summer internships and training is a prerequisite for graduation in all the Egyptian petroleum engineering schools.
“At Suez University, the department is responsible for offering internship opportunities for students in companies. We communicate with companies and get their permission, and allocate the students according to the number of internships the companies offer,” said Ashour Owais, Dean of Faculty of Petroleum and Mining Engineering at Suez University, to Egypt Oil & Gas.
It is important for students to attend training both in the office and the field; however, not all the students, especially female students, are able to get practical internship, as Ahmed ElBanbi, Chair of Petroleum and Energy Engineering Department at the American University in Cairo, told Egypt Oil & Gas.
“I did many internships when I was an undergraduate, but all of them were office based. I had the chance to visit a field only once when I was in the United Arab Emirates, but it was only one day, so it doesn’t really count,” Hussein said echoing ElBanbi.
Osama had a different experience when he was an undergraduate as he was exposed to the field. Yet, he did not have the chance to do any of the work. “In one of the internships I attended, the supervisors did not give us the safety uniform, so we would stay away from the equipment and not interfere in the work,” he said
Suggesting Better Preparation
Owais believes that universities should offer their students more on campus extracurricular training courses as the students need these courses along with the field internships. These courses will help them get the full picture about the industry, as he disclosed.
Currently, some of the petroleum engineering fresh-graduates and students enroll in such courses after graduation in off campus training centers. “We are now trying to coordinate between one of these centers to offer these course to Suez University students. If this protocol is put into action, Suez University students will be able to attend these costly courses with reduced fees,” Owais stated.
For ElBanbi, the process of preparing the students to the field is a shared responsibility of both educational institutions and the petroleum industry itself. “What we can do in universities is to recruit professors with both strong academic and practical experience. If he/she has done the real work before, then the way he/she explains [working] conditions to students and design the course and the assignments will be different, will be very practical,” ElBanbi explained.
He further believes that the national and international oil companies (NOCs and IOCs) should help the students to be exposed to the field. “The industry itself should do its part in preparing students to join it. If the opportunities for training are limited, then it is difficult for the students to understand the working environment,” ElBanbi added.
From his experience, ElBanbi noticed that structured training programs are more helpful for the students than the training programs in which students have to supervise the process. “If the students have to do specific tasks during their training and have to deliver something such as presentations, calculations, or report to their supervisors during the training, that makes the outcome of the training tremendous,” he explained.
The Fruits of Working on Rigs
“I have learnt things that I would not have learnt ever in the office. Working in the field definitely honed my technical background… on the personal level, I started to be more confident and decisive. Also, it helped me to learn how to deal with people from completely different background,” Hussein said.
Osama believes that working in the field is a must for him to achieve his career goals. “I think I am young now and I have the mental and physical abilities to endure the tough working conditions on rigs. If I do not do that now, then, I will not be able to do it later in my life,” he added.
Hussein, Osama, and M.A agreed that despite working on rigs is challenging, it is worth it compared to how much they learn on the professional and practical levels. In addition, the financial compensation for field-based jobs are higher than the salaries of office-based jobs in the petroleum industry.