A Profile of a Modern British Man

At the back end of last week, fellow blogger JuliaM and I had some fun responding to this set of Tweets (you can read the whole thing here if you wish). I might be being a bit unfair picking on this chap in particular, but I do so because he’s indicative of a much wider problem. It starts with him complaining about the mess which is Universal Credit. That part I can well believe – it is a government-run scheme after all – but it’s the underlying story that is more interesting.

Where to begin? Firstly, I don’t know much about Aspergers and depression, so I can’t say whether these are real and serious impediments to getting a job or he’s just being a fanny. What I have noticed is that these afflictions seem to be rather prevalent among middle-class lefty political commentators; if people working on construction projects around the world suffer similarly, they generally don’t mention it. And I’ll note these disabilities didn’t seem to stop him getting a degree. As for anxiety? Well, that’s an unfortunate side effect of being alive.

Secondly, he’s only now finding out that a BA Honours Degree in Media Writing is worthless. He says his degree is appropriate for certain fields and in the same sentence says these fields actually require different degrees. He’s also only just finding out that media and journalism are difficult fields to break into. It sounds to me as though he didn’t bother doing proper research into what fields he wanted to work in, what the entry requirements are, and what the demand for such work is.

Note that he is calling himself a freelance writer. He complains most potential employers want experience. This chap is 25 and appears to have no relevant experience he can show an employer, which raises the question: what they hell has he been doing between 18-25? If he wanted to be a freelance writer, he should have got out there and done some freelance writing. Does he have a blog? Has he done any freebies to get his name about? Or is he just expecting to turn up in a job aged 25 with no experience on the basis of a worthless degree.

Also, if you suffer from depression and anxiety, is freelance writing a wise career choice? Freelance anything looks pretty stressful, particularly writing. “Freelance work dried up”? Was there any to begin with?

Then we have the idea that retail, customer service, and bar work are jobs university graduates take as they “break into their careers”. Well, back in my day these were jobs you did while you were at university. Nobody “breaks into their careers” doing bar work, unless you want to be a barman. It seems as though this chap, at age 25, has never held a job of any sort in his life. Now this might be due to his Aspergers, but the fact he seems unaware that students are (or were) expected to work in the holidays suggests that’s not the only factor in play here. The benefit of crappy student jobs is not just the beer money, it also gives you the beginnings of a CV. My first job was as a teenager scrabbling around on a farm. The farmer wrote me a reference when I got a formal summer job on a different farm. That farm’s manager gave me a reference when I applied for a job at Toys R Us a few months later. Flogging toys has little to do with picking cabbages and driving tractors, but when you’re 19 a letter from an adult confirming you can turn up on time and not steal anything is invaluable. My first proper job after university (aged 23) was something like the 6th or 7th job I’d held. If you’re 25 and trying to get your first job of any kind – well yeah, you’re going to struggle.

Here’s an anecdote for you. When I was working in Dubai I was in a crap job going nowhere on pretty rubbish pay. I desperately wanted to work in Russia and started applying for jobs elsewhere. I reckon over the course of a year I applied to something like 100-120 jobs, most of which I was suitable for. I got replies to about 3 or 4 of them; all but one said “no thanks”. The rest simply ignored me. But the one who replied interviewed me and gave me the job in Sakhalin which launched what passes for my career. As someone once said to me, you have to be in love with the word “no”. And as someone else said to me, you only need one job. Eventually something will come up, but if you start feeling sorry for yourself and “unable to go anywhere or do anything” you’re giving employers a clear warning of what sort of person you are.

Of course, it doesn’t surprise me he’s still living with his parents. Had “rent been an issue” he’d have got himself a job come hell or high water, instead of moping about the place complaining nobody will give him a freelance writer’s job. Yes, rent is expensive which is why most people – even engineering graduates working decent jobs – house-share for a while. No doubt this guy’s Aspergers prevents that, too.

Welcome to the world of work, son.

Awful hours? Sorry, what else were you doing with your time? You’re complaining about not having a job, yet turning your nose up at warehouse work? Why, because it’s beneath a nice, middle-class boy with a BA in Media Writing? See, if you’d taken that warehouse job while you were at university you’d be a floor manager with a forklift licence by now, and if you worked nights you’d be on double-pay able to do all your writing bollocks in the quiet periods. And yes, entry-level pay is awful – although it’s still minimum wage. The idea is you show your employer you’re worth something and move up the ladder. Why didn’t his father tell him all this years ago?

So our poor, suffering friend here wants a cushy writing gig because mundane jobs will cause him to go into meltdown?

At this point both Julia and I have heard enough:

What was interesting is how many commenters expressed sympathy with the guy rather than telling him to buck his ideas up and stop moaning. A number took issue with Julia and I, admonishing us for not being supportive to Mr Johnson.

Does everyone remember that post I wrote back in summer about modern parenting methods? Well, this is the result, folks.


Recruitment and Marital Status

Yesterday I came across this Tweet:

To which I replied:

Marital status is important: some roles will seriously strain a marriage.

This appeared to cause some confusion. The original poster – who appears to work in recruitment – couldn’t work out if I was serious or not, and some other pompous twit from Brooklyn (where else?) jumped in to say that what I was doing was illegal, the laws exist for a reason, and I am “not helping” by not understanding this.

For the record: I am not a manager and I am not involved in recruitment or hiring in any capacity. But I used to be, a long time ago.

It’s interesting that anyone should consider what I said as contentious. Perhaps I’m wrong, though. Maybe the partner working long hours in the office, being too involved with work, or spending weeks away from home is something that rarely gets mentioned in divorce proceedings? Somehow I doubt it.

But I looked at it from another angle. You probably don’t want to be sending a middle-aged family man on a lengthy overseas assignment to places like Russia, Venezuela, or Vietnam on single status. This is often a recipe for disaster as he gets bored and ends up having an affair with one of the many young local beauties who hunt expat men for sport. Yes, the responsibility for the affair lies squarely on the shoulders of the man, but I have heard enough wives complain bitterly that his employer should not have sent him there in the first place: had he not gone, the family would still be intact. I am not convinced the employer, knowing full well what is likely to happen, doesn’t have some duty of care here. But the law says that they must not attempt to exercise it.

I understand why the laws came in: enough people were convinced that married or unmarried men or women were being discriminated against when it came to recruitment, and they believed marital status should not make any difference. Which is odd, because I am forever hearing about the importance of a work-life balance, but for that balance to occur one must surely consider what sort of life we’re talking about. Apparently that is illegal.

For the sake of this post, let’s say I might agree that companies should not be allowed to reject a candidate based on their marital status, but I think it imperative that an employer explains the nature of the job to candidates and attempts to fully inform them as to any possible impact on their personal life. How else is the candidate supposed to make an informed decision? Supposing the job involves working nights, or spending weeks away from home? Should the company not ask the candidate to consider the effect this may have on his personal life? The candidate might not even be aware the job would have such an effect, as I’ve heard a lot of men lament as they lie amid the ruins of their lives, shacked up with a Chinese hooker and the divorce papers on the way. As things stand, the employee is on his own to figure out how a job might affect his family, and the employer is compelled by law to pretend it is irrelevant.

It’s not even clear to me which direction the discrimination is supposed to run in. I can think of several roles that would suit single people, but I often hear that very small, dull, or restrictive places are “good for families”; single people will go crazy with boredom. At the very least, I think a company should try to ensure that each person’s personal goals, expectations, and family situation are as compatible with the location and demands of the position as possible. An unhappy employee with domestic troubles is the last thing a company needs.

National governments have attempted to legislate away the effects a demanding job has on family life, as if by passing a law they simply disappear. They don’t: all they’re doing is creating more work for divorce lawyers, brewers, and the manufacturers of anti-depressants. The idea that an employer – who has such a massive impact on your life, controlling around a third of your waking hours – should take no account of your personal and family situation seems insane to me. But here we are: obviously most people like it this way.


The Modern Business Interview

The BBC reports on feedback from people who’ve been asked daft questions in job interviews, and as usual doesn’t bother telling us half the story:

Katherine Irvine was 37 when she went for a job as a recruitment consultant in Cornwall. She was shocked to find her interviewer was concerned that she was too old and wouldn’t have the energy to do the role.

“It was a group interview and the interviewer commented that myself and one of the others were ‘older’. There was a concern about us being able to work long hours.”

She was then asked: “What do you think? Do you think you’re too old?”

This was probably a fair question. Recruitment consultants these days are basically minimum wage telemarketers: they know nothing about what they’re buying, even less about what they’re selling, and work on a volume business taking a cut of whatever they manage to shift. From what I’ve seen it’s a young man’s game and populated mostly by greasy spivs you’d not trust with a blank piece of A4, let alone a CV.

Katherine was surprised at such open discrimination and informed the company’s HR department who said they were “shocked”.

Sounds as though that HR department is doing a splendid job. I wonder how many people it employs and what it costs in overheads, yet still can’t get company managers to conduct interviews without breaking the law?

Mature student Kevin Helton told us: “The interviewer asked, ‘You used to be in the Army, how many people have you killed?’

“My answer was, ‘Depending on the outcome of this interview, the number might change.'”

Heh! Good answer.

Others have faced a grilling about their personal lives, particularly women of child-bearing age.

Francine is a high-flying solicitor now but when she first entered the job market and applied for a medical secretary role, she was asked if she was going to get pregnant and leave.

I believe companies are entitled to ask this. What they’re not allowed to do is reject a candidate because of their answer. But given how much employers have to shell out when one of their staff takes maternity leave, it’s hardly surprising they ask about it.

“I was 24 years old then and it was one of my first interviews. I turned down the job when they offered it to me.”

So did you get pregnant and leave whichever job you did take? Alas, the BBC doesn’t ask. I would have, which is probably why I don’t work for the BBC giving interviews. But note she applied for a job as a medical secretary and is now a solicitor. Perhaps the interviewers sniffed that she wasn’t fully committed to the role she was applying for?

Even just a year ago an interviewer asked her, “Are you Jewish?”

“In retrospect, I should have said that was none of your business,” she says.

Marc Callow was shocked to be asked in an interview for a recruitment management position if he was gay. “I was that gobsmacked that I just replied ‘yes’. I got the job but it was a portent to what the company was like.”

Companies are forever being told that “diversity” is paramount and more minorities should be hired. This has got to the point that many companies keep statistics on how many minorities they employ and in which positions. But companies aren’t supposed to ask about this minority status in interviews. How does that work, then?

These kinds of questions really have no place in a job interview, because there are laws against discrimination, as Peter Reilly, principal associate at the Institute for Employment Studies (IES), explains.

“In a legal sense, you have to be careful,” he says. “You have to ask, is that relevant to the task? And if it’s not, you shouldn’t be asking it.”

That’s the entire diversity industry out the window then, isn’t it? Indeed, I wish we would go back to those halcyon days when “Is that relevant to the job?” was something we could ask.

That goes for racial issues too. One person told the BBC: “The interviewer said he was surprised I was white because he thought my name sounded black.”

The interviewer must have been as thick as mince to have actually said that. But nothing surprises me about those who turn up in modern businesses.

And this is an entertaining list of questions you should not be asked:

Is English your first language?

The concern is that if the answer is “no”, you might be able to put together an email in proper English.

Are you married?
Do you have children?

Because taking into account an employee’s work-life balance is completely unnecessary. I mean, has a couple ever got divorced because the breadwinner was spending too much time at work, away from home? I don’t think so.

Do you have any criminal convictions?

No, instead you can request a far more intrusive DBS (formerly CRB) check.

What are your sexual preferences?

You can’t ask whether anyone is LGBT but we expect you to employ more LGBT people. You’ll just have to work it out from the adam’s apples, the limp wrists, and the Birkenstocks.

There was a time when job ads would, as a matter of course, contain details of the salary that the company was willing to offer.

But nowadays, as one PR executive found out when he was approached by a well-known tech firm, it can actually be quite hard to pin down an interviewer on that kind of detail.

“The second question was: what’s your current salary? I asked, what’s the range for the role? and the response I got was, ‘We don’t reveal salary ranges, it’s not our policy, so you go first.’ I was astonished,” he says.

“I just thought, that, for me, is completely unprofessional, and I said, ‘I don’t think that’s a very productive way to go forward.'”

The candidate is spot on here. I also find companies’ refusal to indicate a salary to be highly unprofessional, and this is compounded by them having the cheek to demand you tell them what you’re earning now. But this is just one of many ways in which HR and recruiting has gotten much worse over the course of my career. Sadly, the decline has been interpreted by most corporate managers as progress.


Modern Management Explained

An article in the BBC inadvertently tells us what is wrong with modern management:

Many of us shy away from public speaking. A 2014 survey by Chapman University found a fear of public speaking was the biggest phobia among respondents – 25.3% said they feared speaking in front of a crowd.

However, that fear may be limiting our career opportunities. A survey of more than 600 employers in 2014 found that among the top skills recruiters look for, “oral communication” was number one and “presentation skills” number four;

Here’s a novel idea: why not assign those who are natural public speakers to those roles where presentations are a regular feature of the job? Presumably those who fear public speaking have other valuable skills, so why don’t we identify them and assign those individuals to positions where those skills will add the most value? Perhaps this is better than trying to beat round pegs into square holes by insisting everyone should be an expert public speaker, no?

One of the things that pisses me off more than anything is “management” has been touted as a science for decades now, and there are literally tens of thousands of books on management techniques and hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on training courses on the same subject. Sprouting from this has been the rise of the sprawling corporate HR department which is justified on the grounds that personnel management is so advanced these days that it requires teams of experts to assess each employee, ascertain their personality type and skills, and properly assign them so their utility is maximised and teams and departments are properly balanced.

Does this actually happen? Does it fuck: despite HR now enjoying a seat on the board of every major company, we are now being told that they can’t even manage to assign those who are good at public speaking to the roles which involve public speaking, and instead those who are crap at it are being told their careers will now suffer. We might as well fire all the HR staff right now and let department managers handle it all, like they used to.

This is also telling:

traditional management skills such as “managing administrative activities” came down at the bottom.

Having observed how administrative activities are normally managed in any large organisation, I can well believe it. I suspect the reason is because the modern brand of manager sees the day-to-day management of routine activities as beneath them; better to advance their careers throwing spanners into works at regular intervals and speaking in woolly terms about “diversity” and “behaviours”.

Yet a 2014 online survey of 2,031 US workers found that 12% would willingly step aside to let someone else give a presentation, even if it lost them respect at work.

98% would willingly step aside to let somebody else fix their PC, too. Why is giving a presentation considered something everybody should be good at? Or is that all that happens in major companies these days, presentations?

“Public speaking is no longer optional in your professional life,” agrees speaking coach Steve Bustin, author of The Authority Guide to Presenting and Public Speaking.

“It’s an essential business skill that needs to be learned and practiced like any other skill,” he says. “Many job interviews, especially for senior level jobs, now require a presentation to the interview panel”

And doesn’t that just describe the requirements of a modern manager in a nutshell? Competence, diligence, transparency, ability to shoulder responsibility, organisational skills, experience, technical knowledge, and getting shit done are all subordinate to one’s ability to use PowerPoint and sound off in meetings.


What Companies (Don’t) Want

Via Adam, this article:

Surveys of the key skills employers seek in graduates continue to place so-called “soft skills” – like verbal and written communication skills, the ability to work collaboratively in teams and to influence others – in the top ten. But a 2016 report found that other skills – such as critical thinking, problem-solving, attention to detail, and writing – top the list of missing skills among job-seekers.

These skills are rated as being important across all jobs and industries. And employees not having these skills costs businesses thousands of dollars per year.

A US survey has found miscommunication costs businesses with up to 100 staff an average of US$420,000 per year. Even more staggeringly, in another study, 400 businesses with at least 100,000 employees each claimed that inadequate communication cost an average of US$62.4 million per company per year.

I can well believe that having employees with the ability to explain themselves clearly, write a concise and understandable email, and prepare properly-structured and well-written reports is of great benefit to a company. I can also believe that such skills would make the top ten in a list of what employers desire.

What I don’t believe is that such “soft skills” are considered in the least bit important when it comes to recruitment, retention, and promotion. Sure, they might make the top ten but one must bear in mind that Mecca Cola probably makes it into the top ten best-selling cola products. There will be two, possibly three, key skills that companies require and the rest are largely irrelevant. For all the talk about the important of “soft skills”, they only ever get mentioned when an HR department is talking up its own importance, someone is peddling a training course, or you’re getting a bollocking for upsetting somebody. A look at the average email or report will tell you that written communication skills aren’t considered very important in the modern business world.

I have my own experience to offer up in support of this statement. I don’t think I’m getting too far above my own station when I say I have pretty good writing skills, and I have the ability to convey quite complex information in a structured, logical, and clear manner. There are better writers around than me, far better, but not many of them are engineers. Back when I was doing my A-levels my chemistry teacher told me I was rather uncommon in that I was a scientist who could write, and advised that I make use of that. I can honestly say that being able to write quickly and accurately has helped me a lot in my professional life, but insofar as it has been recognised by any employer over the past 17 years I might as well type with my fists when drunk. There have been one or two occasions, three at the most, where my writing abilities have been recognised in passing but they’ve certainly not contributed in any way to the positions I have been offered or the tasks I have been assigned. I might be a very, very average engineer who rubs people up the wrong rather too often but I would bet that I’ve been one of the best writers of English in any of the companies I’ve worked for (yes, even the big ones). Out of the technical staff I reckon I’d win that contest hands-down. Nobody even noticed, let alone put it to use.

In short, I’d not pay much attention to what companies say they want; I’d instead look at what they actually do. Revealed preferences, I believe these are called. And they’re not in the least bit interested in whether you can write.


I’d rather watch Neighbours

The cringeworthiness of this recruitment video pushed out by the Australian Department of Finance is surpassed only by the hilarity of this blog post ripping it apart. My favourite line:

“I wouldn’t miss it. The last one was great,” she informs him with a level of sincerity usually reserved for hostage videos.

Whoever signed off on the original video needs to be taken outside and shot.

(H/T Adam)


How Not to Advertise a Job

This is a good example of a crap job description:

To manage, develop and support the project activities in a safe, structured and cost efficient manner.
Accountable for the delivery of services from personnel across the projects ensuring high standards are maintained and continuously improved.

Key aims and objectives
To ensure that all project / company HSE goals are achieved and where possible exceeded.
Ensure all project personnel are aware of / implement safe working practices / procedures and are provided with a safe working environment.
Deliver a high standard engineering capability at project level, ensuring a consistent and efficient approach is implemented at all times.
Implementation of a continuous improvement philosophy across the project engineering function, delivering best practices at all times.
Maintain and deliver the project objectives within budget and where applicable implement cost saving initiatives.

Prime responsibilities and duties
Management and direction of project engineering in the safe and structured delivery of the project goals
Management and continual improvement / development of the project.
Ensure a consistant approach is adopted and implemented across all project areas.
Production of project procedures / documents. Review and maintainance of exsisting procedures / documents.
Management of budgets and costs associated with the project. Production of budget / cost reports
Data analysis and compilation of project management reports
Maintaining schedule / cost deliverables associated with the project

Firstly, take the first two key aims and objectives of the position:

  • To ensure that all project / company HSE goals are achieved and where possible exceeded.
  • Ensure all project personnel are aware of / implement safe working practices / procedures and are provided with a safe working environment.

Is this the role of a Project Engineer?  Is it fuck.  The first is the responsibility of the Project Manager in the context of all project activities, and the Operations Manager (or whoever) in the context of all other activities.  The implementation is overseen by HSE people employed either by the project or the operating organisation.  What’s happened here is the job description has been forwarded to somebody who wants to show of his alleged commitment to HSE and thinks that putting meaningless and inaccurate guff at the top of a job description will serve the purpose.  However you dress up your organisation, it is not a project engineer’s job to ensure company HSE goals are achieved and to provide a safe working environment for employees.  The industry is full of this box-ticking bullshit, and the sooner it ends the better.

Secondly, all they’ve done is taken a generic project engineer job description and left out any details as to what the job is all about.  It tells you nothing about the scope or size of the project, whether it’s brownfield or greenfield, what phase the project is in, whether the position is within an operator or service provider.  For all the information given in this advert, the job could involve designing and installing a brand new platform or repainting the lines in the company car park.  If these guys recruited for the catering trade, their advert would run something like this:

Cook Wanted!


Accountable for preparing food.

Key aims and objectives

To ensure safety standards are met.

To prepare food to meet customer expectations.

Prime responsibilities and duties

To ensure all food is prepared to a high quality.

And I’ll not even mention the spelling mistakes.


Engineers and the Managers they Make

One of my pet topics which I bang on about here is the inability of oil companies to recruit people, usually in response to the latest whine from an oil industry executive about how difficult it all is.

But there’s an important point to note here.  Oil companies have no difficulty in recruiting people, as demonstrated by the ever-increasing headcount and new departments which appear and bloom like flowers in spring.  The problem is these thousands of people they get through the door, and the new departments which they form, are often tangential to the business of getting oil out off the ground.  Ask anyone who works for a major oil company to describe what all departments in his organisation actually do, and you’ll see by the blank look on their face that I’m right.

But that’s really a problem of having too much money, which means efficiency is unimportant (see here).  But for all that, oil companies do have a serious problem when it comes to recruiting people who they desperately need to run their operations, and once again it is not due to a lack of talent in the marketplace but rather a lack of understanding about what sort of people they actually need.

A mate of mine spent a summer on an internship for an investment bank in London, where he worked his arse off until the early hours every morning on mergers and acquisitions.  He told me that the hours were long, and the work intense, but not really difficult.  Anybody reasonably bright could have done it, but the investment banks insisted on taking only the cream of the crop from the top universities into their graduate programmes.  Why?  Because they were paying so much they felt they should only be looking to get the very best people.  The result was a lot of very bright, highly educated people attracted by the money found themselves doing jobs they hated and for which they were entirely unsuitable.  It’s somewhat of an ego thing on the part of the investment banks (and they’re not alone: I know one London law firm who simultaneously struggles to recruit and insists only Oxbridge graduates are considered).

Oil companies have a similar problem, partly driven by egos and partly by a failure to understand how the role of a major oil company has changed in the past few decades.  The major oil companies probably have the best overall employment packages in the world, and their graduate packages are particularly good.  As a result, the number of applicants far exceeds the number of places, so the oil companies are in a position to make exacting demands.  This means that they generally recruit only the very brightest and best engineers from the top universities (at least this is true for the European majors; the American oil companies tend to recruit from universities with strong oil and gas programmes).  Which is great, until you realise that you don’t actually need only the best and brightest engineers as the majority of your operational workforce.  More importantly, you don’t want that either.

The best and brightest engineers I knew in university, and later in the workplace, were brilliant problem solvers and liked to deal with numbers and hard facts.  In the early years of the oil industry, these were the sort of people who would go to a new location and design, set up, and run an entire operation from the drillbit to the offloading line.  The engineering and technical problem-solving was done in-house, and it made sense to employ lots of engineers who were also the managers of the projects and operations.  And given the isolation in which some of these guys worked in the Dutch East Indies, Persia, and Venezuela having them super-bright and with fierce egos undoubtedly served the companies well.  Faced with a problem, they could resolve it by applying technical principles, skills, and knowledge; or old-fashioned self-assured bloody-mindedness.  Therefore, it made sense to recruit chiefly those who had these abilities.

The problem now is that the oil industry is nothing like this any more.  Other than in the geosciences (i.e. exploration, reservoir management, geology, etc.) and drilling, the oil companies don’t actually do much engineering any more.  They retain a core competence in HQ, and a lesser competence in the operating subsidiaries, for the purposes of providing general oversight, the resolution of a small number of highly specific issues, and some research and development, but otherwise most of the engineering is subcontracted out to specialist companies.  Even at the early stages of a project, the engineering is not done in-house.  The role of an oil company these days is not to carry out complex engineering, but to manage contractors, partners, investors, governmental authorities, and other stakeholders.  The added value which a major oil company brings to the table nowadays is the ability to find and analyse oil and gas reserves; the ability to finance a major project; and the ability to project manage.  The engineering and technical expertise they used to supply can now be found elsewhere in the specialist service providers or engineering companies.

So given that one of the main roles of an oil company is to manage the relations between contractors, partners, and stakeholders from a bewildering array of cultures and nationalities, ask yourself this question: what were the social and personal skills of the best and brightest engineers you knew at university like?  Exactly.

In effect, you’ve got the college geeks who were playing online Command & Conquer until 3am and attending Star Trek conventions now in charge of managing the complex personal relations of thousands of people in a multi-billion dollar industry.  Give them a technical problem to solve, and they’ll get stuck in and give you a cock-on solution the next day.  They understand numbers, physics, and hard facts like the relationships between pressure and temperature.

Unfortunately, this is not the skillset which helps in managing people, who tend to be a lot messier and unpredictable than numbers and mathematics.  And the majority of oil and gas management in the modern era is managing people, something the oil companies don’t seem to have figured out yet.  I recently went on a superb Interpersonal Relations course in Paris (trust me, I needed it) and one of the things we were taught was the difference between a “big picture” person and “details” person; and between high and low context cultures.

Engineers are almost by definition “details” people, and most of them from a low context culture.  A manager needs to be a “big picture” person and in the modern oil business have a good understanding of high context environments (I must confess this latter concept was new to me, and I wish I’d been aware of it earlier in my career).  The typical career path in an oil company is to be recruited as a super-bright, number-crunching engineer and after a set period of time you’re catapulted into a management position.  Here you’re supposed to deal with people and personal relations, whilst maintaining a “big picture” outlook.  Unsurprisingly, most of them are fucking awful at it, masked only by the fact that the company is making gazillions no matter who is managing what.  Faced with people who aren’t behaving as expected (for whatever reason), the typical ex-engineer manager will think he hasn’t explained himself properly (being completely unaware of the high-context culture he’s in) and start treating people like retarded children.  This is coupled with a fear of losing control, and so he attempts to regain control by asking for more and more (and more!) information of an ever-increasing level of detail until the whole operation has been reduced to a bunch of numbers which he can personally “manage”.  In other words, he has quickly retreated to his comfort zone and back to crunching numbers.  It’s micro-management, which is not management at all.

So where do I fit in?  Well, I’m a mechanical engineer by degree, but a bloody awful technical engineer who realised pretty quickly that my organisation, administration, and communication skills far outstrip my technical abilities and that a rapid move into project engineering was the way to go.  When I once found myself a manager of a dozen or so engineers with very little proper personnel management experience, I just kind of went at it in the way I thought best.  Asked about it a couple of years later, I guess I manage people the way I want to be managed myself, i.e. generally left alone to do my job but supported where required.  I gave my lot general guidance on what I expected, told them what role they performed in the context of the overall operation (something very few managers do, by the way), told them the door was always open should they need anything, but otherwise left them to get on with their job as they saw fit.  Provided the technical drawings came out accurate – and they did – I really wasn’t bothered with exactly what they were doing and how.  This is not due to any great managerial insight on my part, it was simply the fact that I had very little knowledge of the discipline engineering they were carrying out.  And I had the sense to belt up and listen when one of my lead engineers was telling me something.

My point is that you don’t need to possess great technical ability to be able to manage a technical team.  In fact, this is often a hindrance.  You usually know what engineering discipline your manager considers his specialty because that’s the area of the plant he wants to design himself, perhaps forgetting that it’s not his job any more.  What I did for my lot was to provide the organisation, administration, and direction which engineers much prefer to be provided for them: if this is missing, the engineers cannot perform.  And I also kept a lot of the shit off my department, ensuring that they weren’t being handed shit-burgers because some other department was serving them up and needed somebody to help polish them off.  I’d say my efforts were more directed towards other departments than downwards through mine, my guys pretty much managed themselves (hence when I went on leave, nobody noticed).  The result of this is that I was never really busy.  In fact, given my level of authority put me just above office driver in the organisation, I had very little to do.  A couple of hours a week at the most.  By contrast, most of the other managers were working 12-14 hours per day and weekends, pulling their hair out over a mountain of issues, and telling me I was very lucky that I wasn’t busy.

Lucky? Or just able to delegate?  When I looked at what these mega-busy managers were actually doing, I often found they were engaged in fine-detail number crunching which one of their team was paid to do, or they were dealing with an almighty mess which had been passed to them because they hadn’t the balls to say “Don’t think so matey, not in that state.  Now off you go and do your job before you pass this shite onto me.”  A lot of the time these guys would tell me they had to do the job of their subordinates or it wouldn’t get done at all.  Then when you look a bit deeper you find the subordinate has never had his job properly explained to him, his job description is a garbled mess, he is receiving confusing and contradictory instructions, and he has been written off as being useless on Day 1.  No wonder the managers are all busy.

This would not be so acute a problem were the only people that need to be managed internal.  But unfortunately for us palefaces, gone are the days when we could just rock up unannounced in a country where we’ve bought a tract of land, run the natives out of their ancestral village before setting it ablaze, and go on our merry way with the business of drilling and pumping oil.  These days we need the permission of local governments, approval from local authorities and regulatory bodies, we are forced to work in partnership with local engineering contractors, and we need to interface with the local communities and a thousand other interested parties.  This doesn’t require technical ability, but it does require one to have a personality, communication skills, and the ability to adapt to whomever is sat in front of you that morning.  I’m not saying I could do this job – I really don’t think I could – but when trying to find somebody suitable it probably helps not to have to draw from a pool of people all of whom are brilliant engineers just off the autistic scale who never had a mate they didn’t meet online and have been told on a weekly basis for the past decade that they are smarter than anyone else by virtue of their working for a major oil company.  And that the company is never, ever wrong.

Oil companies need to understand that good managers have a different skillset from good engineers, and that good managers will complement good engineers (the former allowing the latter to be used most effectively).  The funny thing is, it is extremely difficult to find anyone in the oil companies who is even aware of the problem.  Even when they see the mess in front of them, they just assume “that’s just how it is” (and normally shift 100% of the blame onto either the contractor or the local employees).  If you were to suggest to any senior manager or HR person that maybe we should be recruiting guys who have run a branch of a service company for 4-5 years and making them managers, instead of promoting the engineer with milk-bottle glasses who gets nervous in groups of more than 3, they’d think you’d gone mad.  “Oh no” they say, “we need people who understand the full technical details of the job, otherwise they won’t be able to manage it.”  The possibility of the manager shutting the fuck up and listening when those engineers who are paid to understand the full technical details of the job speak, thus negating the need for him to possess the same knowledge independently, doesn’t seem to have occurred to them.  Not that I’m saying oil companies should recruit random philosophers, historians, and teachers as their management, far from it.  All of them need to be engineers or similar by backgrounds.  Just they don’t need to be those that were top of the class, better to get the guy who scraped a 2:1 because he spent a little too much time on the piss and still spends his free time arranging rugby tours.

It’s one thing for oil companies to complain they cannot recruit the right people.  It’s quite another for them not to even understand who the right people actually are.


Unrealistic Job Advert #7

This one was emailed to me by a recruitment company that really ought to know better:

Field engineer – oil + gas leader Rotation 35/35 Turkmenistan $7k p/m

[T]he role would require the following experience:

• Degree/Diploma in Engineering.

• Should possess sound knowledge in process engineering, plant operation, production, maintenance, planning and multi-disciplinary coordination in a wide cross-cultural working environment.

• Over 10 years of experience with various International Engineering Consultancy firms associated with Oil & Gas Industry.

• Good Exposure to multi discipline activities (Piping, Process, Structural, Instrumentation etc.)

• Work independently and handle multi tasks or projects.

• Planning & Presentation skills.

• Team leadership skills.

So, working in Turkmenistan, degree and 10 years’ international experience required, must be be able to handle projects independently and demonstrate team leadership skills, and we’ll pay you $400 per day worked.

Good luck with that.


Violins at BP

I see BP are the latest oil company to whine about not being able to recruit skilled workers.

A shortage of engineering skills in the UK could hamper growth at BP’s North Sea operations, an executive has said.

In July, BP announced plans to invest £3bn in redeveloping two oil fields in the North Sea, a move that was expected to create hundreds of new jobs.

But Trevor Garlick, head of BP’s North Sea operations, said the company could struggle to fill the available roles.

“Getting hold of the right people is a real issue for us,” Mr Garlick told the Sunday Telegraph.

“We are hiring a lot of people, but we are also an exporter of a couple of hundred people to other regions [in BP]. We are a centre for recruiting elsewhere.”

The rest of the company viewed its North Sea operations as a “training ground”, with talented workers snapped up to fill posts overseas, Mr Garlick said.

If I were being lazy I would refer them here and here and leave it at that.  But I’m a hard-working blogger, so I’ll expand a litte bit.

There is no shortage of engineering skills in the UK, there is only a shortage in the ability of oil companies to recruit people with them.  I had a telephone interview with BP in June last year.  It was for a position which appeared to cobble together two completely separate roles, probably to save money.  I spent half the interview trying to figure out what exactly the combined role entailed, and the other half giving what I think was a pretty good account of myself regarding my experience and abilities.  They never even bothered to get back to me, not even so much as an email thanking me for wasting my time.  Given at the time BP were busy spewing oil all over the Gulf of Mexico, I came away with the conclusion that they were a cowboy outfit I want no part of.  As it happened, I got snapped up by another major oil company (just in case anyone thought I was too useless to pass any interview).

The above experience came after I had applied for positions numerous times on BP’s website, which is as much a recruiting aid as Anders Breivik is an aid to Norwegian summer tourism.  I applied for positions for which I was pretty well qualified – having between 7-10 years experience, which is the window the oil companies aim for – but never got even a sniff of interest.  The same is true of Shell, whose recruitment website consists of a computer which automatically rejects all applicants (I once tried gaming their site by putting together a fake profile which could not possibly be rejected. It was.) and it is also true of ExxonMobil, whose careers website is appalling.  Although to be fair, you don’t hear Exxon whining about not being able to recruit people.  Contrast this with the company which employed me (knowledgeable readers should be able to narrow it down, but please don’t guess in the comments).  I twice applied on their main careers page and twice got an interview within a fortnight.  The first I failed because I said “Africa?  You’ve got to be f*ckin’ joking!”.  The next time, a year later, I said “Africa?  It is my dream to go there!”  And here I am.

Anyway, I didn’t get the job through friends, relatives, or connections.  I got it by going on the company website and applying.  I know of dozens of people who have tried this on BP’s website, and got precisely nowhere.  From what I hear, and I cannot verify this personally, the average career Brit in BP is – like their Shell counterpart – a jumped-up arrogant tosser who has been recruited straight from a top university and told every day that because he is working for BP he must be brilliant and always right about everything.  And all he needs to do to become the next CEO is to shit all over the contractors and stab his colleagues in the back.  Is this true?  I don’t know.  Can I believe it?  Yes I can.  I know this is what far too many of the Shellies are like.  Not all by any means, but far too many.  Almost all the best ones I met had previously been contractors.

It wouldn’t surprise me that the reason BP cannot recruit experienced people is because that would involve one of their number admitting that a grubby contractor is worthy of being spoken to on an equal basis, let alone being accepted.  Far too much recruitment of youngsters by certain oil majors is done on personality instead of competence (whereas the older guys are recruited on length of tooth alone).  If they see you are a super-bright born leader who speaks four languages and played hockey for your country at university level, you’re in.  If you’re a plodder who has found himself in unglamorous, shit locations on shit projects but hung in there and made the best of it, they don’t want to know.  I’m a plodder, who has been in many an unglamorous, shit location on a shit project.  In fact, that’s pretty much all I’ve known.  I’m no high-flyer and I’ll not reach the top in any organisation.  I gob-off too much for that, and am pretty skilled in saying things to people which are wholly inappropriate (in my defence, this is always when faced with blinding incompetence, laziness, dishonesty, or any combination thereof).  But I can dig out blind and get stuff done in pretty much any circumstances, and that – as I am proving now – is of considerable value to an oil company.  My advice to BP?  Stop trying to recruit wankers to be the next CEO.  Find the guy who has been through the contracting mill in a tough location or two, and get him on board.  And then listen to what he tells you.