Having worked in the energy industry for a while before starting my PhD, I was recently asked to say a few words to some of my fellow-students about opportunities in the industry, and figured some other people might find my thoughts useful (it doesn’t just apply to the energy industry).
Thoughts on the energy industry
- I think it is a much harder industry to plot a path forward. In the past, the primary goal was just to produce or get as much energy as you could, as cheaply as possible, and there were plenty of people who spent their whole career doing just that. Now, not many people believe that is a viable path forward. Employees, customers, shareholders and governments are all playing a role in forcing companies to change their priorities.
- The most obvious priority change is taking into account environmental factors, but I think social justice (both who gets charged how much, and who bears which risks) is equally crucial. The ability to listen and understand what society is demanding, to do it, and to be seen to do it, is much more difficult than just maximising profit.
- Unfortunately, this makes it much more difficult for companies to make long-term plans, just when we are faced with major challenges that require long-term commitment. I’m not sure how this dilemma will be resolved. I do expect to see more of the long-term research happening in universities and public foundations, because I can’t see how companies will finance energy investments that have five to ten years of uncertainty over whether they’ll even pay off.
- As a result, I think the successful companies will be the ones that are best able to understand what society wants, understand the latest research, and apply that research to meeting society’s needs.
- Note that when I say research, I was talking mostly about STEM research, since that is the expensive stuff that I think companies are going to be less willing to finance. However there is also a real need for more general research to help clarify society’s needs.
Advice for students going into industry
Based on that view of how the industry is transforming, I’ve noted a few thoughts of what this means for university graduates moving into the energy industry.
- With so much change going on in companies, the ability to pick up new knowledge is crucial. This may involve reading new legislation, learning to use new software or modelling techniques, or understanding the implications of the latest scientific research. There is a lot out there which, if you spent 20 hours studying, you could be one of the top people in the UK on it. Not everything you learn will pay off, but anything that doesn’t take effort to learn is unlikely to be valuable.
- Don’t underestimate what you don’t know. Thinking you know more than you do makes people think you are arrogant, can leads to costly mistakes and constrains your future learning.
- Networking is crucial, inside and outside of the company you work for. Increasingly, the knowledge that will make you stand out will be outside your company, or at very least outside your team. The ability to talk to people, ask good questions, to listen to them, to make them trust you and feel like helping you, is incredibly valuable.
- The value in learning and networking reinforce each other. Networking helps you learn. Learning (and being willing to share your learning) helps you network.
- Practice communicating what you learn, in writing and verbally. It helps you learn (including realising what you don’t really know), it increases the value of your knowledge, and it makes people trust you more.
- With so much uncertainty, managing a team of smart people within a company is seriously difficult. The challenge in such a team is to both do what has to be done (so your boss doesn’t have to chase you), and to use your own initiative to try new things (so your boss doesn’t have to keep thinking of new jobs to give you).