Saturday, May 29, 2010
Plan for the Future: Getting Back to Basics
Things move fast. Technology advances. Efficiency is sought after. Sounds great to be able to automate things. Cookie-cutter our reports. The less you have to think about it the less you can screw up, right? And the more time we'll all have to have fun.
There's a widely recognized phenomenon going on in the sciences, which probably affects most other disciplines too. In the oil and gas industry it's sometimes called The Big Crew Change. Others just recognize it as a generational gap. The Baby Boomers, with all their experience and knowledge, are gearing up for retirement, ready to pass the torch on to the next generation. Houston, we have a problem. Only the problem is two-fold: not enough workforce to carry that responsibility and what workforce is there has half the experience.
For an ambitious young professional, this is the right time to be in the workplace, as there is tremendous opportunity to leap frog to higher positions, faster. Be warned, though. Those positions come with responsibility you need to be prepared to accept and should be trained to address. For science and engineering-based industries, we're heading into a challenging season and have been on that path for some time. The pursuit of science and engineering undoubtedly lead to advances in understanding and evolution of humankind. So how will that advancement progress (or even be maintained) with less human-power behind it? There are so many venues fed by the science and engineering disciplines.
Obviously, we should be concerned about the education offered to the up-and-coming professionals. Schools, starting even at the primary levels, should encourage and support education of the math, sciences, and critical thinking skills. I've witnessed a number of pushes in my local community to bring science and engineering to the young people early on, with career-day activities, extra-curricular programs, and field trips. The geoblogosphere also illustrate examples of this. Higher education needs to invest in hands-on, real-world learning. Things like field camp for geologists shouldn't be cut from the program. (See my earlier post for my thoughts on field camp). Companies, in turn, need to offer competitive incentives and a healthy, constructive work environment to retain and attract the skilled workforce. That's a challenge to companies, as it requires a real investment in the individuals if they want to be truly successful. The oil & gas industry particularly struggles with it's public image, not currently being helped with the ongoing Deep Water Horizon oil spill. John Hofmeister spoke at his keynote address at the 2009 OTC's young professional event (The Next Wave) of the need for companies to change their approach to mentoring and the "bloody" business practices that were the global norm for previous generations.
But it can't stop with the teachers and the businesses. Individuals should strive to learn from the experiences of those who've gone before and be well-versed in the basics. Ignorance won't be an acceptable excuse when things fail, tragedy strikes, and person/property are damaged. Failure is a teacher, but there's too much at stake most times to allow experience to come through failures. Our predecessors had failures, so why would we want to repeat them? The costs are too high.
At the same time, like novelist Kurt Vonnegut said, "True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country." I realized when I heard that the 80's classic movie Karate Kid was being redone that we're about there with my generation. Most annoying, the 2010 version focuses on kung-fu, not karate. Apparently details on the basics aren't any concern. Hollywood is full of this ignorance, as some geo-tweeters point out. (@morphosaurus: Looks like new Robin Hood movie was filmed in a conifer forest. Sherwood Forest is deciduous. As any fule kno.) Makes me wonder what other misconceptions are carried into the workplace (um, boobquake experiment anyone?) or what details someone thinks might not be important.
With all the specialties in every industry, it is easy to have the blinders slipped on and forget that our role affects (or is affected by) things around us. The widget-maker could easily get caught up in the mundane task of widget-making and not realize that the widget breaks (or is dangerous) when it's used, that no one is using the widget, or that changes in the widget are needed. The widget-maker might wonder why the widgets are piled up in the warehouse, a failure to communicate that widgets were even being made. The next generation of professionals will need to be open to cross-disciplinary understanding and be perceptive of what's going on beyond their own contribution. With less workforce available, we'll all have to pick up a little more load than what was traditionally expected. The widget-maker needs to be familiar with widget design, widget marketing, widget troubleshooting, widget de-commissioning and archival, and be open to learning these widget skills. The widget maker is still the expert at widget-making, but without an appreciation for these other aspects of the industry, their full potential at expertness is untapped. That's the challenge for our generation - to balance the generalist with the specialists.
Civil engineers face some of the most tangible examples of how ignorance can play out in their course of work. A bridge collapse near Dublin, for example, was caused by poor understanding of earlier design & utility, combined with not recognizing the problem signs. The collapsed bridge and failed engineering illustrates the lack of appreciation/understanding of what our predecessors have started. M. King Hubbert said, "Our ignorance is not so vast as our failure to use what we know." The Baby Boomers know a lot. They need to share that knowledge, and the next generation needs to take it in, understand it, utilize it. (Photo courtesy of New Civil Engineer, http://www.nce.co.uk/news/transport/ignorance-over-structural-behaviour-identified-as-key-factor-in-irish-bridge-collapse/5215284.article).
At the end of the day, it comes down to basics. Understanding the basic principles of science, math, and physics. The scientific method. Basic geometry and algebra. Basic material and mechanical properties. Don't be afraid to get up close and personal to the rock and learn what it can tell you. That's the stuff that forms the foundation onto which all other things are built. Basic soft skills, like communication and networking, are golden nuggets that will help the evolution of progress.
That old mantra K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid) still has application today. Just as the present is the key to the past is the key to the future. Knowing where to apply the details (and which key goes in which lock) is where the true art and skill come into play.