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SPE Diversity and Inclusion Panel: Thriving in a Multigenerational Workforce During the Energy Transition

In this panel, a group of professionals discuss their experiences and perspectives on working in a generationally diverse workforce and highlight ways to bridge the different generational approaches to work so that individuals of all ages feel valued for their unique capabilities and can thrive in their professional paths.

Panelists gathered to discuss their experiences and perspectives on working in a generationally diverse workforce.

Earlier this year, SPE’s Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Standing Committee organized a panel of professionals who discussed their experiences and perspectives on working in a generationally diverse workforce.

Panelists included:

  • Medhat (Med) Kamal, 2023 SPE President, Chevron
  • Catalina Leal Isaza, Baker Hughes
  • Emily Turkel, Calpine
  • Patricia E. Carreras, moderator, 2022–2023 chair, SPE D&I Standing Committee
  • Shadi Salahsoor, organizer, external outreach team lead, SPE D&I Standing Committee

This transcript is an excerpt from the full webinar, available here.

Patricia: What are the advantages of having generational diversity in the workplace?

Med: Generational diversity is extremely important because we benefit from the knowledge and the experience of all members of the team. Embracing generational diversity is a must for any organization because it helps the mentoring of younger generations. If the company is looking at the long term, then mentoring is important for the future of the organization. The only way you can do this is by having different generations working together, learning from each other, and depending on each other.

Catalina: Every person is unique, and people from different generations may bring different points of view to the table. This helps to promote innovation and creativity. I have personally seen a lot of intergenerational relationships. You would typically think that the most experienced person is the one coaching and guiding the younger professionals. But, in some cases, reverse mentoring allows younger employees who are more tech savvy or that bring fresh perspectives to mentor older professionals.

Emily: A lot of studies have been done looking at how different age groups are bringing different forms of intelligence into the workplace. For example, younger generations tend to bring what is called “fluid intelligence.” It is about being able to quickly absorb new information and easily develop new approaches to solve problems. On the other hand, some older generations have “crystallized intelligence,” from which they can draw on experiential knowledge and various ways of thinking and can compile that different information into what is called “wisdom.”

In my own experience, I found that having older colleagues review my work and act as mentors increases the quality of the work I do by bringing this experiential knowledge in, and at the same time I can help bring new ideas and quickly amend my colleagues’ work, using my own form of intelligence.

Patricia: What do you think are the consequences of not having generational diversity at work?

Med: The main disadvantage of not having generational diversity at work is that you end up having a gap in the knowledge and experience of the organization.

Our business is cyclical, there are up and down cycles. We made mistakes during the down cycle. We stopped hiring, and then, during the up cycle, we hired again. Consequently, organizations have a gap of age and experience in their workforce.

When senior people retire, you end up having to reinvent the wheel, you lose experience, you will not have the chance to pass this knowledge on to the new generation. It is important for organizations to have a continuum in the workforce.

Catalina: It’s more important now than ever to ensure a talent pipeline that can help us progress the goals of the energy transition. Diversity is incredibly important from the millennial standpoint. In our generation, diversity is key, and age diversity is one of them. The lack of generational diversity can negatively impact an employee's performance and how they feel in the workplace.

The millennial generation wants to feel that our work relates to a cause, that we are providing value with our work. If the value added is not effectively communicated, some employees might consider leaving the company.

Emily: I have been in workplaces where there has been a lack of generational diversity. For example, at a prior organization, most of my colleagues identified either with my Gen Z generation or with the millennial generation. So, to be honest, I was comfortable in that workplace, because we were all similar. I never felt out of place. I felt like everyone understood the issues that I was going through, but at the same time I realized that a lot of the work we did was missing an important contextual review.

Patricia: How can different generations support each other at the workplace?

Med: We need to keep an open mind because everyone has something to bring to the table. Everyone has knowledge and experience to contribute to the group. I learned that a long time ago from one of my mentors. He was my professor at Stanford, and I was talking with him about a technical presentation that was going to happen, and I said, “This is the area you and I work with a whole lot. So maybe I can skip this presentation.” He told me, “If you are smart enough, you are going to learn from everything.”

If somebody talks, even in your area of expertise, consider that as very important and listen. Even if you think that you are knowledgeable about a given area, listen to what others are presenting. If you are smart enough, you are going to learn something new.

Catalina: It is about having self-awareness of our preferences, for example our preferred way to communicate. We need to be aware of our team’s diversity and of our company's diversity. Cross-training and being intentional about mixing those different factors when you are developing a team is very important. This might be implemented by establishing mentorship relationships between members of different generations.

Also, help identify strengths and weaknesses of your team members. You might help use the strengths of some members to develop the weaknesses of another. Being intentional about this is a very good way to help each other influence the workplace. Some companies are a good forum to promote diversity of all forms. This responsibility is on all of us too.

Emily: Younger employees can bring a different perspective and can help bring other points of view into the workplace. But I have also found that mentorship from my older colleagues is extremely important to helping younger generations feel supported. Having a perspective on what challenges the future may bring makes me feel supported, not just as a working professional but as a human being and can make me feel more comfortable in the workplace.

Patricia: Communication is a key skill to succeed at the workplace. Could you share tips to communicate with colleagues at work? For example, is email better than WhatsApp? Or is personal communication better than email?

Med: There is no better communication than in-person communication, especially at the workplace, for example, when you are discussing how to solve technical problems. There is nothing better than to be able to walk into your colleague’s office and say, “Hey, I have this idea.” Then you can discuss your problem. After the COVID-19 pandemic, communication at the workplace changed a lot. We had to learn to be effective with online communication.

Many people now work from home. Now we are communicating using Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Google.

On the other side, the very important point is that especially when solving problems, the solutions need to be documented in a proper manner. For example, if you are exchanging your information via emails the progress is written down. So, emails are a good way of communicating. WhatsApp is a good tool for quick communication and for social discussion. I still think that nothing surpasses personal communication.

Catalina: How you have grown dictates how you behave. That's why I keep saying that every person is unique. Everyone has different communication styles or preferences depending on how they have been raised, or the experiences they have had. Some people prefer in-person communication, others might prefer a call, yet others might prefer to communicate through emails or WhatsApp.

The leader of a team needs to be aware of the communication preferences of the team members. Sometimes the leader needs to adapt to not make people feel uncomfortable.

I really like the face-to-face interaction, even if it's turning on your camera. The pandemic taught us to adapt and use virtual tools. There's nothing like seeing the expression of someone when something's being said. Communication sometimes is the culprit of most misunderstandings, and it's usually because we put the intonation to the message, either received from WhatsApp or as an email. However, we think we can understand the tone of the message. Always assume positive intent, assume good faith in what they are trying to say.

Emily: I and a lot of others from my Gen Z generation have never had personal communication. I graduated from college during the pandemic. I entered the workforce during the pandemic, and that's a pretty common story for a lot of those in my generational cohort. My generation has this concern about the blurring of your personal time and your work time. So, for example, if my home is my workplace, then I am always primed to be ready for emails, for texts to respond to work concerns. One important thing about communicating in this sort of 100% in-the-office world is making sure that you are still mindful of what's an emergency and what's not an emergency.

I don't necessarily need a WhatsApp or a text in the middle of the night about a project that I am not going to be able to get to until the next day. That's important, not just the medium of communication, but the time and the urgency that you allocate to those communications.

There have been some studies about the preferences of Gen Z regarding communication. Email is great for formal processes that you want documented. If it's a quick communication, instead, and I need to give a quick answer, I prefer a Teams message or a Slack message, or another inter-office communication. The reason I wouldn't necessarily say text message or WhatsApp is because I consider those personal platforms, and I do want to maintain some sort of barrier between my personal life and my work. It's important not to group all people of a certain generation and assume that they prefer one form of communication over another.

Patricia: Due to the big crew change and other reasons, companies have reduced the workforce, which makes it harder for younger generations to get experience. How would you suggest that companies create bridges to the new generation?

Med: Companies can create bridges to the new generations through training, by giving new employees the chance to be able to learn all the aspects in which the company is working, not to learn only about the specific area of assignment.

You start by exposing new employees to all different things, generalized before you specialize. Take the time to be able to bring new employees in, train them, let them know the whole organization. Then, they will be able to work on their specific jobs, while being aware of how their job is affecting other aspects of the organization.

Catalina: Education and awareness help to support a diverse workforce. If companies don't intentionally work to engage and retain talent, and hire more people, they are not going to have the talent required to push the boundaries of innovation.

Emily: There's also an important step before the training. Being from a young generation, I don't make decisions about hiring, but I can still internally advocate to bring on more interns, to bring on more analysts, to bring on more people who can learn from the company. It's important to do that internal advocacy work.

It's great to visit colleges or other places in person where you might find new employees. That's much more powerful than just putting up one job posting somewhere hidden away. Obviously, we don't do that all the time. But I do think it's an important thing that should be a priority for companies and we should internally advocate for that.

Patricia: Since each one of you represents a different generation, please briefly share what the energy transition means for you.

Med: Energy transition has been happening for a long time, it has never stopped. A long time ago people were using different forms of energy compared to the sources that we use now. We progressively transition into different forms of energy. We need to continue to produce the energy that the world needs now. That has a very large contribution from hydrocarbons and is going to remain like that for a long time. We need to continue doing our work to produce this energy as efficiently and as environmentally friendly as possible. The oil and gas industry has a lot of work to do to reduce its carbon footprint, by implementing carbon capture and sequestration by injection in an underground formation, for example.

Energy transition also includes developing new forms of energy, like solar, wind, and nuclear. Thermal energy has been part of our portfolio for a long time, but right now we have more advanced ways of managing that. The new form of enhanced geothermal involves a very large resource available worldwide rather than areas with abnormally high temperatures, like the geysers. All of us in the petroleum industry have a very important role to play during the energy transition.

Catalina: We need to continue producing energy from fossil fuels, but we need to reduce the emissions to the environment by identifying waste and pathways to make the operations cleaner and more sustainable. Renewable energy sources are a more sustainable and clean way to produce energy.

Millennial employees seek to use their employment to make the world more compassionate, more innovative, and more sustainable. I want to feel part of that so I can leave the world for my kids and grandkids in a better way.

We all play a role in this. Getting the points of view, the technical expertise, and the experience from the millennial generation along with the tech savvy and analytical ideas from Gen Z generation, will help to accelerate the energy transition. I feel blessed to be part of this change because I personally want to feel that I'm making a difference. By 2050, the population will be 9.5 billion according to the United Nations. Hydrocarbons will not suffice to provide energy for this population. We will need all forms of energy, including solar, wind, and nuclear.

Emily: We are not going to stop using hydrocarbons tomorrow, or perhaps even during my lifetime. But I see a future, probably during my children's or their children's life, where we do dramatically cut back on hydrocarbon usage around the world, including in emerging economies.

This is an incredible opportunity to grasp knowledge from the upstream fossil fuel industry and apply it to other technologies. Geothermal and carbon capture and storage are the two topics that take up most of my working hours. So, there are a lot of opportunities for younger professionals to get into these emerging newer technologies, or at least newer applications of old technologies.

We shouldn't be picking and selecting which energy resources are the best. We should be weighing them all and using them all in their best way and to their best capabilities. There are many new opportunities. If you are trained as a petroleum engineer, you are no longer just forced to do only petroleum engineering work. There are so many different fields that you can now get into with that education, with that background, and with those work experiences. It's important, especially for young generations that don't necessarily have as much experience to lean on, to understand that they are still in a great position to fill many different roles in the energy transition.

Patricia: Can you provide some perspectives on how to embrace and manage generational diversity in the energy transition? What are some of the strategies you would recommend?

Med: The SPE mission is to produce safe, reliable, and sustainable energy. We are on the right track. I want to address how we embrace diversity in the energy transition. We need to keep an open mind. Everybody has something to bring to the table.

 For example, there are three women and one man as part of this panel. You may get the impression that we are doing all right as far as having enough women in our industry. We are not. We are doing much better than others, and we are on the right track. But we still have a long way to go to accomplish gender equality. We only have about 15 to 20% women in our workforce. There are 50% women in the world. It’s obvious that there is a gap. We need to continue working to solve the gender gap. There are more women than used to be in STEM careers but still the percentage is low. Whenever you get a chance, mentor members of your family, your friends of all generations, especially young women in high schools and community schools to pursue engineering careers.

Catalina: We need to work on developing inclusive hiring practices. For example, when looking at your diverse pool of candidates, be flexible, be open minded.

Also, we need to make sure that we communicate to others outside the industry what we do. We are the best advocates of our industry. The oil and gas industry has been able to engage more women and younger generations. We do a pretty good job going to schools and going to universities. But after some time, growth and development opportunities lack for women. There are less women in the industry when they get to 10–15 years of experience. Unfortunately, there are a lot of women that don't make it to leadership positions.

We are in a male-dominated industry where some people may think that there are no flexible options for women to have kids, for example, and to go in and raise a family while still working and having a leadership position. The perception is that men can put in more working hours than women, or that they can travel more. People make assumptions on behalf of women limiting progression opportunities. Companies need to take actions to keep women in the workplace and give them opportunities to progress and get to leadership positions.

Emily: The most important strategy for me is to be respectful of people of all ages. I found that some managers have missed my ideas due to my age. Others have really provided constructive criticism and helped me grow my ideas into tangible projects. The more respect I receive, the more productive and efficient I am, and that really goes for everyone. Without respect, it is difficult to find the motivation to do good work.

We have all been drawn to this field for different reasons. What brought me and many others of the younger generation into this field is the tenant of sustainability. Some generations are motivated by security or safety. It is important to value and respect the perspectives that the individuals from different generations bring to the workplace and understand that the motivations might be different, but that doesn't mean that your work is any less important or any less useful.

Patricia: Tech companies have successfully promoted their industry. How have energy companies tried to pull this talent from other industries?

Med: It is very important to recognize that oil and gas companies are technology companies. Anyone can look at the public statistics about compensation. The oil and gas industry has excellent compensation packages and benefits for employees.

Catalina: In the case of the younger generation, apart from the compensation, consider some additional benefits that you might receive, for example, flexibility of work schedule, being able to work remotely, having a nice campus where you can take breaks instead of sitting in an office at a desk.

Emily: Compensation is very important. Those of us who have been in school recently know about the benefits provided by tech companies. This makes new graduates skew towards that career path. At the same time, we have seen tons of large layoffs from these tech companies.

I don't know if younger people are going to continue to see tech as such a durable, safe, and highly compensated industry. The really great thing about the energy field is that it is very consistent, no matter what you are doing, you need energy.

So just make sure that employers are spreading the message, “Hey, this is a secure feature. This is one that will compensate you fairly, and this is one where you can be respected. You can find others like you in this industry.”

Patricia: In your perspective, how can employers promote generational diversity and leverage it toward the organization’s mission?

Med: My organization has specific succession plans in place. If you are a successful manager, then your number one job is to prepare your replacement. That means that you are working with the next generation to make sure that they have the knowledge and the experience to carry on the work, and of course, improve it.

They are going to use their own knowledge and their own experience, and their learning for working with previous leaders. People like to join companies that have a specific system to prepare future technical leaders. A lot of people associate success with being on the management ladder, but that is not completely true. There are many opportunities to progress on the technical ladder. Companies need to work with their employees to develop them technically and, more importantly, to compensate them appropriately for what they do.

Catalina: We need to educate the workforce on the importance of diversity and its benefits. We need to be able to openly talk about diversity so all the leaders and people from HR, the people that take decisions, make the workforce more diverse.

Social media provides the right means to get diversity and inclusion messages across and to promote activities and events. Consider the implementation of programs to make the workplace a safe and more fun environment, an environment where you feel there is affinity with a group of people so that you can feel comfortable.

There are diverse employee resource groups or affinity groups in some companies. In some others, there are mentorship programs run by employee resource groups. There are also networking events for career development. Many of these employee resource groups are sponsored by the companies.

Patricia: What do you think is the role that your generation plays in the energy transition?

Med: My generation knows how this current technology was developed, and how we were able to succeed in developing this technology. We need to make sure that we convey information about the cleaner forms of energy, the more sustainable forms of energy, the forms of energy that are more friendly to our environment, to the new generations. It is important for our generation to be open-minded to recognize the competences that we have, so that what we are doing is transferable to other forms of energy.

SPE is working very closely with numerous educational institutions worldwide to reshape their curricula to add proper training so that their students can have the competencies that are needed.

Catalina: There are studies that mention that by 2025, more than 80% of the workforce will be millennials. The millennial generation is very well equipped to lead and accelerate the energy transition. We will be able to make decisions that will dictate the strategies of the companies in which we are going to invest and on which we are going to focus.

Millennials want the world to be more compassionate and more sustainable. We will play a big role also in communicating and translating what energy transition means to younger generations. As we progress in our career and as we get to those leadership positions, it will be very important for us to be aware of diversity and what it brings to the table in accelerating the energy transition.

Emily: It is important for Gen Z to be open and receptive, to absorb the institutional and experiential knowledge from older generations. It is not only that the older generation needs to share information. This is also on us, as Gen Z, to observe that information, to ask questions, and to learn from that.

Gen Z may be in the position to push the end of transition forward, and to bring new ideas, but ultimately, Gen Z is the youngest generation now, but we will not stay to be the youngest forever. There will be a day when Gen Z is the oldest generation in the workplace. So, it's important to really be leveraging this perspective now, while simultaneously being sure to absorb that important knowledge that's needed to keep the energy system afloat. Our responsibility as a generation is not just to push for new technologies and new ways of thinking but to make sure that we can rely on the security and safety of the traditional energy sector as well.

Patricia: On behalf of the SPE D&I Standing Committee I would like to thank the panelists for their insightful contributions.