Singapore's NUS Slowly Builds its Petroleum Engineering Program
Monday Sep 26, 2016  

One inevitable consequence of the two year-long downturn in the global petroleum industry has been job cuts, a development that has negatively impacted the entire business worldwide. However, downsizing offers opportunities for organizations to hire skilled professionals that would otherwise not be easily available.

It is in this context that the National University of Singapore (NUS) recently recruited 2 former employees of Royal Dutch Shell plc to teach its fledgling petroleum engineering (PE) program, which will be celebrating its first anniversary in January 2017. The presence of industry veterans among the teaching staff could offer a boost to the program among current and future students.

The NUS PE program has its genesis in a government plan to improve the petroleum equipment and services sector. Although Singapore has no hydrocarbon resources, it has been a key center supporting the upstream sector in Southeast Asia. Singapore’s Second Minister for Trade & Industry S Iswaran said Oct. 15, 2014 that the sector had enjoyed a compounded growth of 10 percent since 2006 and contributed $2.95 billion (SGD 4 billion) in manufacturing output in 2012.

Given its relatively sizeable financial contributions to Singapore’s economy, albeit prior to the slump in global oil prices, the Minister said the sector offers opportunities to engage in high-value research and engineering activities in providing solutions for the energy industry.

And so, the petroleum engineering professorships program (PEPP) was launched in October 2014 to help build research and development (R&D) capabilities and talent for the sector. As part of the PEPP, the university was required to offer new course modules in petroleum engineering for the Masters in Offshore Technology (MOT) and to partner companies in R&D projects.

Rigzone interviewed Professor Arthur Cheng Chuen Hon from NUS Department of Civil & Environment Engineering for an update on the Masters’ PE program. Cheng is one of staff teaching PE at the university.

Arthur Cheng Chuen Hon
Arthur Cheng Chuen Hon, Department of Civil & Environment Engineering, NUS
Department of Civil & Environment Engineering, NUS

Rigzone: When we met in late 2014, you mentioned that NUS will launch PE as part of MOT in 2015. Did the program proceed as planned and what has been the response?

Cheng: I think the response is quite positive. But the enrollment is not as high as we had hoped for because of the industry downturn. We have several candidates taking master's and a couple pursuing Ph.Ds. We will probably get a couple more doing their doctorates next year.

Rigzone: How would you describe the profile of the students?

Cheng: The profiles of students in the first intake in January are quite mixed. Most take the program part-time, but there are a couple doing it full-time. The majority of the part-time candidates are self-financing although a few received partial support from the companies they worked for. The first group of students will probably graduate in Spring of 2017. We have also received our second group of students in July (two annual intakes for the program – in January and July).

Rigzone: What are your observations about running the PE program for nearly a year? Are there plans to tweak the program?

Cheng: We are still evolving the program. Besides myself, we have Dr. Elita Li, who joined us as an assistant professor this semester. She is a seismic expert. There will be a professor who will join us in October. He’s a reservoir engineer, with 35 years of experience at Shell. We have another Shell employee, who specializes in reservoir geomechanics, starting work in January. So these two senior staff, when they come on board, will work together to evolve the PE program further. There could be more focus on the reservoir part, covering flow-related issues.

Rigzone: Can you tell us whether PE candidates are offered internships with oil and gas equipment and services companies?

Cheng: Currently because the master's program is typically part-time, there is a conflict regarding internships for candidates. However we are looking into opportunities for the couple of full-time students we have to do internships with such companies.

There are a number of companies in Singapore who have expressed interests in internships for our master's students. Our undergraduate engineering program also has industry attachment programs with companies such as Halliburton. I am not sure whether Schlumberger Ltd. is offering anything at the moment, but CGG is certainly working with us. And Total S.A. will start work with us next year. And hopefully, we will work with others, perhaps with Shell and other such firms.

Rigzone: Has there been any feedback on the PE program from the industry so far?

Cheng: Local-based companies are very supportive. The hope is to train Singaporeans to be able to walk into these type of jobs. So companies like CGG, which historically has a sizeable presence in Singapore, is not able to attract as many Singaporean candidates as they would like. So they hope through this (PE) program, we can encourage more Singaporeans getting into this business.

Total started Total E&P Asia Pacific Pte Ltd. center in Singapore a year ago. Right now, they are staffed with expatriates. Over time, they would like to help us help them train geoscientists to employ into their services. [In this regard], Singapore hope to attract more international groups of scientists and engineers to be based here.

Rigzone: Given the PE program at NUS is relatively new, do you have sufficient resources (such as facilities and software) for the course?

Cheng: We have sufficient resources – local companies are very eager to work with us to provide resources in terms of software, data, etc.

Rigzone: The global oil industry downturn has been around approximately 2 years. What has been the impact on the NUS PE program and the industry in general?

Cheng: Personally I don’t see that (industry downturn) as a major impact on the PE program. What I’m seeing is the impact on the thinking of potential students, whether they would want to come into this program. We see the impact fairly direct in terms of their applications not just to the PE program but also the offshore technology in general.

We are seeing the impact now in the oil and gas sector, with people leaving the industry for good. We see some people who work in the more midstream offshore side of the business – such as those building subsea systems and on the construction side – who showed more interest in the upstream side (focused on exploration and production). They actually have the perception that upstream business is more stable than midstream which is so heavily dependent on capital spending and the “ups and downs” (of the midstream segment) can be much more drastic than the upstream side tends to be.

Rigzone: When we last spoke in 2014, you said the Singapore Economic Development Board and some local-based companies had funded the initial start-up of the NUS PE program. Has the program reached a point when it is self-sustaining?

Cheng: Not yet.

Rigzone: In the current industry environment, will NUS step up efforts to attract applicants not just in Singapore but also overseas for the PE program?

Cheng: We will try to market our program more. I think the focus is mostly on Singaporeans. There are concerns that there are not enough Singaporeans wanting to get into the program. We tried to attract more Singaporeans and this is one of our major aims.

As for applications for the PE program from outside Singapore, NUS is obviously a very well respected university in Asia. With the availability of a program like that, I think the people in the industry are much more eager to be part of it. To be honest, there is no equivalent program like this anywhere in Asia. If you want to study upstream geosciences, you have to go to Europe, the United States or Australia. And so I think because of that, there is a certain amount of interest in the program generated among Southeast Asians.

Rigzone: Regarding collaboration on R&D projects with the oil and gas industry, has the NUS PE program undertaken any so far?

Cheng: We are working on a project with Halliburton. We are also involved in project that is co-funded by SMI (Singapore Maritime Institute) and a local company called NauticAWT Ltd. (a Singapore-listed subsurface, subsea and surface facilities engineering services and solutions provider). And we have cooperative work with CGG, using their software. Some of these projects involved actual money.

Rigzone: Does NUS track the employability of their PE students after graduation?

Cheng: Yes, it’s part of our KPI (key performance indicator).

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