Energy & Environment

Will The ‘Digital Oilfield’ Still Need Roughnecks?

Industry insiders say the work might change, but companies will still need the people

An oil drilling rig pictured in rural DeWitt County, TX

Some say oilfield workers of the future will need new tech skills, but that at the same time, their jobs will be easier. However it plays out, the industry’s digital transformation could mean big changes for its workforce.

At a recent panel discussion in Houston, oil and gas executives were asked whether the “digital oilfield” of the future will have a place for “roughnecks,” the grease-and-sweat jobs of the industry.

“We will need less, but a lot of that work is not going away,” said Jim Claunch, VP of Operational Excellence at global oil company Statoil.

Claunch said new technologies can give workers more guidance in their day-to-day tasks. Take the “augmented reality” glasses some companies are already experimenting with.

“Before somebody is going to work on a pumpjack, for example, they can put on the glasses and they can see, ‘okay, here’s the things about safety I need to worry about,’” he explained. “And then, ‘show me step by step how I fix this.’”

That could save time, which of course is money.

“There will be increased safety, there will be increased profits, but overall, we’re still going to need people,” said Scott Desmarais with consulting firm McKinsey.

Desmarais said as it stands, oilfields still need routine maintenance, though that will change with more automation. He noted the possibility that future workers won’t waste time checking up on an oil well, unless the well tells the worker there’s a problem.

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Travis Bubenik

Travis Bubenik

Energy & Environment Reporter

Travis Bubenik reports on the tangled intersections of energy and the environment in Houston and across Texas. A Houston native and proud Longhorn, he returned to the Bayou City after serving as the Morning Edition Host & Reporter for Marfa Public Radio in Far West Texas. Bubenik was previously the...

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