Doing more, faster, with fewer people, and the job outlook for careers in geology
It seems that not a day goes by that there isn’t a report of some new machine assuming tasks formerly performed by people. General news often reports new automation on manufacturing assembly lines or kiosks taking orders in fast food restaurants. But geoscientists are also in the middle of rapid transition caused by the emergence of automation offsetting some middle-skill geoscience jobs. How to handle and analyze big data sets using artificial intelligence and machine learning are the future of geoscience jobs. We are increasingly being asked to do more work, faster, with fewer people.
The newly published (2019) American Geosciences Institute (AGI) “Status of Geoscience Workforce 2018” reports that the “Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), says there was a total United States demand of 311,768 geoscience full-time equivalents (FTE) in 2016, and this number is expected to increase by 11 percent by 2026 to a total of 344,704 FTEs. With approximately 147,000 geoscientists expected to retire by 2026 and approximately 62,000 students expected to be graduating with their bachelor’s, master’s, or doctoral degrees in the geosciences, the BLS expects there to be a deficit of approximately 118,000 geoscience FTEs by 2026.” However, even though AGI predicts a shortage of the geoscience workforce over the next decade, they are confident that recent advances in the integration of data science and machine learning, particularly within the resource industries, will continue to yield measurable efficiency and productivity increases which will substantially absorb the deficit in actual individual geoscientists. In fact, the integration of new technologies will require future geoscientists to be skilled in new ways as the nature of work in the geosciences changes with these developments.” As I write this column the oil and gas industry is certainly experiencing this transition as technology improves efficiency and causes companies to reevaluate the types of jobs that need to be filled with qualified and trained geoscientists.
This change was inevitable. It’s the natural progression of the economy as Adam Smith, also known as ''The Father of Economics,'' described in his book, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). It was in that book, the first modern work of economics commonly known as the Wealth of Nations, that he introduced his theory of absolute advantage. As Wikipedia describes it, absolute advantage refers to the ability of a party (an individual, or firm, or country) to produce a greater quantity of a good, product, or service than competitors, using the same amount of resources. Today’s technology tweaks his theory by allowing for a greater quantity of product using fewer resources. This was the message complete with examples at the most recent HGS symposium, the 2019 Applied Geoscience Conference Subsurface Intelligence and Analytics Conference held March 5-6 at Anadarko Petroleum’s offices in The Woodlands. We heard about working applications of automated geosteering, automated log correlation and log editing, automated directional drilling, and machine learning and neural network analysis for interpreting seismic geobodies and picking faults. Companies are already marketing services that allow geoscientists to work faster. For instance, Geophysical Insights’ Paradise software product uses machine learning to find geobodies in seismic volumes, but it takes a person well versed in geology to interpret the stratigraphy of the geobodies. Also, the cloud (remote offsite electronic storage) is becoming the essential element for data management. The days of a geologist spending a lot of time searching for data that may have been saved to another worker’s computer, or possibly lost, are drawing to a close. Companies like WellDrive are increasing productivity by providing cloud storage and a systematic file structures to accumulate all the millions of files of data for operators and their partners. I have been told that TGS is similarly providing offsite cloud storage for seismic and well logs which will be readily available to their clients. The cloud adds new meaning to the old concept of “central files.” By not needing to spend time looking for data, geologists will have much more time for analysis.
As Dr. Edward Jones said at the December HGS Joint HGS TAMU General Dinner: The Future of Artificial Intelligence (AI) Applications in Geology, “artificial intelligence” (AI) should really be rebranded “intelligence augmentation”. All the increased efficiency of data access and computer technology allows geoscientists to use statistics to analyze far more metrics fromwell data to better predict new areas of production and the best ways to develop it.
So, today’s geoscientists need to be somewhat of a hybrid. As AGI reports, they not only need a strong technical background in geoscience, but they also need strong quantitative skills to gain and retain employment. In addition to those technical skills, employers continue to desire non-technical skills such as effective communications, and business and finance exposure. Today’s careers in geoscience are not for the underachiever.