The Great Crew Change: Is Too Much Textbook-Only Training Risking Safety?

The Great Crew Change: Is Too Much Textbook-Only Training Risking Safety?

Nearly one year after the first related article was written, comments on what is now Rigzone's Great Crew Change series signal one overriding concern.

Spanning all age groups and experience levels, with college-educated engineers and rig workers alike, the most frequently cited concern is safety – and whether companies are really doing enough to protect human lives by over-emphasizing classroom training and not providing enough on-the-rig experience.

The prime issue centers upon the many young trainees coming aboard worldwide to replace so-called "baby boomers," or those born between 1946 and 1965, who are either retiring or approaching retirement age. Many "boomers and beyond" say that incoming young workers and professionals are too often being moved into safety-essential supervisory positions with little or no actual rig experience.

Safety a Matter of Hands-On Experience, Not Just Education

The consensus among those we contacted and those who commented to Rigzone was that newer workers – both professional and blue-collar – need considerable "field" (rig and/or platform) experience before they can move into supervisory positions safely.

In the flurry to hire sufficient numbers of engineers and rig workers to replace "baby boomers," who are at or nearing retirement age, the industry appears to be "fast tracking" too many new workers on the basis of "book learning" and coursework – when experience is the best teacher, the majority contend.

Here's a sampling of what we heard, by age group:

Representing retirees with extensive backgrounds in safe drilling practices was well-known lecturer and drilling safety expert, Dr. Leon Robinson, 84, of Houston, Texas.

"It is really worrisome," said Robinson, a retired ExxonMobil PhD engineering physicist who is now a part-time instructor in Basics of Drilling at Petroskills in Katy, Texas. "We see many students here who are being trained for supervisory positions, but who have absolutely no rig experience," he continued, adding: "Drilling is about 70 percent engineering and science and about 30 percent experience and art. You cannot calculate and plot the latter."

Also weighing in for retirees with extensive experience and safety know-how in drilling operations was industry consultant Bill Rehm, 83, also of Houston. Rehm, an expert in well pressure, well control, horizontal drilling and underbalanced drilling, said:

"Along with the great crew change, there has been a major change in attitude towards supervision and training among the operators in the drilling business. The change has been that supervisors and engineers do not have to have several years of hands-on experience. This is following the old Harvard Business School lesson that if you can run a Firestone Tire Store, you have the management skills necessary to manage. The problem is that the supervisors, engineers (and regulators) do not have the basic knowledge of the field practice. Hence, while hours of safety training are required, few in the training business, and less of the management, understand the actual practice.

On the other hand, while safety efforts have been to a large degree effective and will probably continue so, there always remains the problem of major failures due to lack of supervisory and engineering hands-on knowledge."

Representatives of the post-World War II "baby boom" generation (ages about 47-66) included Alan Davidson, age 51, a native of Scotland who is currently in West Africa as a well services supervisor in drilling and development (March 28 comment posted on "The Great Crew Change Series").

"Young engineers are being thrown into responsible positions without the necessary experience," Davidson said. "We have seen serious incidents in our field recently and I'm sure other events not publicized are on the increase. New engineers think all the necessary information comes from a laptop instead of actual exposure to live events. When they run into scenarios that don't come from a manual or literature is where they become stuck. 'If they listen' is key to the successful new engineers coming through."

Also speaking up vigorously on safety issues related to the Great Crew Change was a 50-year-old operations manager (name withheld by request) in Singapore for a worldwide service company.

"I've 24 years O&G experience and [am] currently an expat manager," he said. "Prior to accepting this role, I managed a significant service company back in my homeland, where we went through a recruitment campaign. The majority of applicants these days expect a spunky secretary, company car, their own office and a mobile phone –- all on day one. Yet if I wanted them to work more than two weeks straight, or asked for something beyond the norm, I would be landed with either 1) Union issues 2) HR issues or 3) I'd lose the hand (my preference!)."

Kids these days are generally lazy, over-educated, over-fed and have no idea of what a hard day's work is all about… If I were 20 years old and looking for work, why would I consider the O&G industry when there are safer jobs, with just as big income to be made, and I can be home with my lady each night…. Will employing [more highly-educated] engineers fix this all this? You've got to be bloody kidding! Actually, the industry is kidding itself and that's the other reason why it's losing all the experienced and/or quality hands! Talking of engineers, bloody text book whizzes… don't get me started!"

And last but not least, representing younger/newer industry workers, was a rig manager for one of the major oil companies with operations in the Persian Gulf, an industry veteran of only seven years experience, who firmly believes that both "textbook" and hands-on training by more experienced hands is quite essential for both super-safety and personal success in the field. Here's his story (March 4 comment posted on "The Great Crew Change Series"):

"…So you want to be a roughneck, eh? I went to Maritime Drilling Schools Limited [MDS] in Canada and my experience with this school was excellent. I did this course in 2005 and went to work immediately afterwards because of the tickets I had from this school. The drilling school provides hands-on rig experience and covers all operations in drilling and safety training. Once you finish, you receive 12 certificates that meet government and industry accreditations and there were 28 students in my class from all over the world."

The school also prepares you physically and mentally and pushes the limits, adding life skills and job-readiness to the program. We had an opportunity to start a physical training program at the state-of-the-art gym across the street, as the school promotes a physical fitness program at a reduced cost, to prepare you for the physical aspect of conditioning for the job. On a continuous basis, they talk about working in remote areas and financial responsibility, so that you save your money and have a fat bank account for when you're done."

This was the best move for me and my family, as it has benefited me in many ways. I worked my way up the ladder on land rigs and now working as rig manager ... in the Persian Gulf. Well, that being said, I would never have gotten this far if I didn't have the knowledge and expertise given to me by Reggie MacDonald and his brother Colin. Throughout my career, I have never run into two knowledgeable instructors like those guys and they were the best trainers I ever had and I [have] been to a lot of schools over the past several years."

… [I]f you're serious, you can do very well in this field. I know a lot of students who went to this school; some stayed with it and some didn't. The ones that did are doing very well, but you've got to go out to Alberta, North Dakota or Texas when you finish the course. If you laze around waiting for the employer to call you, well, it'll most likely never happen."

The younger industry veteran's theme was not an unusual one among younger, newer rig workers, namely that there are no "free rides" in the upstream petroleum industry. Extensive technical training, sometimes the equivalent of college but without the college degree, plus very serious and hard hands-on rig experience, seems to be the ticket to the highest safety-plus-success ratios on rigs. But are parts of the industry also spawning a generation of degreed engineers and perhaps other rig workers, being whisked into rig supervisory jobs with little or no rig experience? Additional comments welcome!

Coming Up in May's Great Crew Change: A profile on Eric Roth, who began cleaning 'potties' on Rig supply boats, worked every trade he could, then paid to study textbooks hard and now, in only his early 30's, earns $200,000+ as a drilling consultant in health, safety and the environment.

The Great Crew Change |


Generated by readers, the comments included herein do not reflect the views and opinions of Rigzone. All comments are subject to editorial review. Off-topic, inappropriate or insulting comments will be removed.

Bottomfeeder  |  April 24, 2012
Too many managers and engineers who can work out the square root of a tin a beans but cannot open out. I had a chartered engineer ask me the other day how a diver would carry a 25te shackle. He looked at me quizzically on reply. It finally dawned on me what he was asking: he wanted confirmation that a 25te shackle weighed 25te! never spent a day in his life onboard a DSV yet wrote installation procedures for divers. You cannot educate pork.
EL  |  April 23, 2012
Performning training on real equipment with fresh personnel will require a greater number of persons involved and the operation is likely to take more time. Try adding an extra week to a rig operation due to training or fresh crew... Someone will have to absorb that cost. If there is no interest in spendig those dollars nothing will change.
mandell taylor  |  April 21, 2012
i want more information for the schools and where to attend please help me
Guy S. Barnes III  |  April 21, 2012
My expertise is in Land, Marine and Transition Zone geophysics. After Litton bought out Western Geophysical they replaced all the field engineers with Litton engineers. Six months later they had to rehire all the previous field engineers because they could not grasp how we dealt with the unlimited variables they faced. Mother nature does not operate from any playbook! I have seen grown men, very educated in their field, break down from the isolation and physical challenges on board a seismographic vessel or on crew in remote locations. I have worked with 3 fellow workers who had a PHD in physics. One who was briliant as a good manager and understood the equipment as well as many field engineers. The other 2 I wouldnt hire to fill shoe boxs. I worked with a fellow who had his masters in electronics engineering as well as a masters in electrical engineering with an impressive GPA. He couldnt fix an FM radio. Of all those I trained through the years it seemed that the best trainees came from the lesser universities. The one root problem I saw was that those attending the higher rated universities thought they knew it all and their eyes and ears were closed to further learning. Those from the lesser schools still had the thirst for learning and experience and would listen to their more experienced co-workers. One of the best crew managers I ever worked with came into the business as a brush cutter. After going out and getting drunk with a couple of his older friends the night of his graduation from High School he was woken up in a motel room pre-dawn and told "get dressed and hop in the truck, we got you a job as a brush cutter." He stayed with the business because it fit his adventurous nature. Now he is fluent in at least 3 languages, understands the equipment involved as well as most engineers and can manage a crew of 3 to 4 hundred personnel better than most I have seen. As for the safety issue, I have seen well seasoned crews go from an almost perfect record to considerably higher incedents due to the adaptation of some corporate safety program designed by a company that is factory based. Factories do not move under your feet, pitching and rolling. Factorise do not wash you off the deck with a rogue wave, and you can go home from a factory at the end of the day. Grossly limiting personnels mobility with extra gear in-case-of is not always in their best interest. I have seen a huge increase in head injuries due to limits on visibility. The best learning experience is OJT! Lap tops and classroom are good but they are just a fraction of what is needed in the field. Experienced hands guideing as the job is done and a trainee that listens. In the service we called it trial by fire, in seismic they used to say, "you can tell the keepers by the expression on their face the first time they wade out far enough in the swamp that the water reaches their crotch".
Shashi Mohan Kaushik  |  April 21, 2012
As Oil Industry is growing in technology to drill safer, faster and more challenging wells without downhole complicacies, we need to have qualified Engineers with sufficient on field training for proper implementation of their education, prior to let them sit on supervisory positions. They need to make their hands dirty to understand the dignity of workmanship and to become a good leader.
Ian Hodgson  |  April 21, 2012
Its a vicious circle. How do you get the guys rig experience. Working as a service company manager in West Africa for 30 years we alway run into the same problem when trying to blood young people. Operators are very loath to allow "Trainees" on their rigs, they all want experience. We are talking here of getting Trainees out on rigs along with experienced hands, its difficult but necessary..
Evan Jones  |  April 20, 2012
Singapores founding PM Lee Kuan Yew, was a lawyer. He never did a days manual labor in his life. When he closed the Ford car factory in the early 70s, he said he didnt to want to see Singapore become a nation of car mechanics. He believes you can built a developed nation with a purely academically educated workforce, where any work involving dirt under the fingernails is relegated to Filipino and Bangladeshi guest workers. The developed West is nowadays similarly run by lawyers and MBAs who also despise anything to do with manual labor. This is most dramatically manifested by the Wall Street yuppies who have destroyed Americas industrial base by systematically buying up productive companies, gutting their assets and offshoring the base business to factories in low labor countries. An entire generation of young people in the developed world have now reached adulthood who lack exposure to, or respect for, for real work. While todays modern rigs are physically easier to run than the old ones, the laws of mother nature that define operational limitations and possibilities are still the same. Classroom training is useful but limited in application to the world of real work. Only those who have put in the long years on the job are truly qualified to actually oversee complex offshore wellsite operations. Todays younger generation of Westerners dont need to put up with the hardship that we did. (I started working offshore in 1975.) Nowadays, we are already seeing the "offshoring of offshore jobs". Rig work is increasingly being taken over by Filipinos, Indians and Indonesians. They are not scared of doing heavy hazardous work and they dont mind working for long periods away from home. The oil industry is its own worst enemy. Controlled by managers with a 90 days earning mentality, it only pays lip service to valuing and developing people.
Mike Gilstrap  |  April 20, 2012
You need to sacrifice to gain experience. Educated or not hands on is still the best teacher bar none.
Tashev  |  April 20, 2012
Dear All The new engineers are helpless without their laptops . They are not able to make a basic calculations without a laptop . The other issue is that we still use old generations rigs mixed with last generation and the engineers are confusing .
Jack Nelson  |  April 20, 2012
In 2003 I agreed to take an early retirement package from my employer, after 41 years working for offshore drilling contractors, (who ended being the same due to buyouts (mergers), in many parts of the world. Unfortunately I am only a high school graduate, not an "ENGINEER", so I applied, at age 62, to many companies, but they wanted "A COLLEGE ENGINEER", and I did not get a job until 2004, when someone who knew me, and the job I had done, contacted me. I worked for another 4 years, and had good evaluations, before I messed up. They gave me a chance, and I messed up, personally, not the job. Not my work. My rig (I was the Manager) did very well. The rig had an excellent saftey and performance record. I straightened out after losing my job and tried to get another. Many places in the world, as I will work anywhere, but, being older, no college, nothing happened. I still know, unlike BP and their Macondo location, that you pay attention to Mother Nature. Yes, you can drill holes in her butt, but do it properly. No problem.
webi  |  April 20, 2012
it was coming that was obvious ! looking back now, to a situation that was not taken seriously then and more occupied not to get downtime and getting the job done first ? Now using "experiance and inniative" isnt in the books they give them! prefering the mobile phones to call someone else first ! another era...onhand training in the Field thats where you learn realities...doing 12hr shifts and only Drinking Coffee to keep going to and get the job done ! and getting called a "As...... or better as stimulation! cant even do that now ! get sued by a court procedure ! where we going ? A well used, but proud to be oilfield Drilling and Service hand International
S.Malik  |  April 19, 2012
Well, taking about Safety and Training, If ONE of the world known company, which is operating in Pakistan. It was a time back in 2007-2008 was not agreed to provide gloves to the drilling crew, when temperature was more than 48C in the Sindh Province and also the same company was famous for other problems including communication with drilling crew. And still people are working with that particular company, think about Safety and Training of these people now. Things are not very much different than before. Regards.
Robert  |  April 19, 2012
I think you need the older hands to teach what they know to the new hands. I was a rigger foreman and instructed the new riggers with me before they worked on the higher risk jobs. We had a very good safety record due to the hands knew what to look for in any situtation that came up. We kept a barge working with a 6 year run of the same core crew and didnt have much down time Installing jackets and removing platforms with out any major incidents. Now it seems like there answers to everything offshore is send everybody to school and its all good i would like to know what the accident rates are now.
Travis Wernecke  |  April 19, 2012
One thing that the older generations seem to be forgetting is that they were once greenhorns new to the process as well. If they think back they will probably remember the old hands chuckling at them when they were about to make a mistake through inexperience. The level of training available now, whatever it may lack, is still superior to the training available in the sixties and seventies. Back then qualifications for getting a job were often knowing someone who was hiring without the stringent education requirements in place today. Even so, education is intended to give you a knowledge base that prepares you to learn the job. There is no way a four year degree program can produce experienced people, the way you gain experience is by doing the job. This generation will learn the same way people always have, by doing. Along the way they will begin to influence the industry and make it their own the same way you did. As stewards of the critical knowledge that they need, it is your duty to prepare them and keep them safe until they in turn can do the same for the next generation.
Ed  |  April 19, 2012
Perhaps the older hands quoted are taking too rosy a view of their peers when they started. I'm sure that 100% of the hands that started in 1975 were intrinsically motivated, worked safely from day one, required minimal training and supervision, and all developed life-long careers filled with magnificent accomplishments. Their innate abilities were so powerful that no amount of book-learnin was needed, and all experience they gained came from doing the right thing the first time. No one that is currently nearing retirement ever learned a valuable lesson from making a mistake, it seems. Are we doing business in a different way than we used to? Yes. Is that necessarily a bad thing? No.
Joseph Abshire  |  April 19, 2012
Even entry level training can suffer from book-learning only. When teaching rigging classes we finished by having students rig drill pipe and move it around the deck. When I mentioned this to other instructors at an instructor class, not one other used actual hands on training, only classroom.
wan fauzi  |  April 18, 2012
Just seven years and now Rig Manager? This is incredible for high risk operations like drillings. This is short term strategy to maximize profit but in long term could be worst and more costly should major incident like Macondo happened.
Ty  |  April 18, 2012
Coming from a young industry professional, this is concerning for us as well. The timing is such that there is real need for engineers, often with little or no industry experience whatsoever just to take workload off of the few seasoned hands left. The need is so apparent these days that it is unrealistic for many engineers to spend significant amounts of time in the field. Im not convinced that sending a new engineer to the field for a few years and leaving a 3-5 year drilling hand juggling 7-8 rigs at once is the safe answer either. This is the reason why the industry leans so heavily on the internship while studying in college. For many, it is the only field experience a young engineer will gain before being thrust into the insane workplace that is seen during an upswing in the market. The industry needs to continue to recognize this and promote internship opportunities as well as mentoring programs. Instead of complaining about the new guys running around compromising safety, take them under you wing and teach them what you know. We understand we dont have the practical knowledge of the previous generation, but any young hand worth his salt will listen.
Howard Hull  |  April 18, 2012
In relation to the great crew change, the rig manager with 7 years experience and his training. If this man is already a rig manager, then in my opinion we know why the Transocean incident with BP in the Gulf happened. No way he has the needed experience to handle the job! Which was one of the main contributing factors, not knowing what the hole and the well was telling them, which only comes from experience. Regards,
James v slowey  |  April 18, 2012
A perfect example of training versus experience as follows. A jack up rig goes into a real time emergency H2s abandonment situation, Equipment required life vest, B/A set, procede to life boat Stations in the event of not having the latest equip ment which item Would we all advise to don first? HSE ANSWER consult your company Procedeures, MY ADVICE WAS PROTECT YOUR PERSON FROM WHICH EVER HAZARD IS GOING TO KILL YOU FIRST, IF THE HSE CANT EVEN GIVE SOUND ADVICE WE MUST RELY ON OUR EXPERIENCE

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