Creative energy

Diversity in the oil patch brings an innovative solution to an age-old industry

When Calgary businesswoman Suzanne West launched Imaginea Energy last year, she took a holistic approach to hiring her founding team members. For her fifth venture, a private oil and gas producer, West had set herself the ambitious goal of changing the energy industry, measuring success in positive environmental impact and sustainability as well as economic growth. With $300 million in financing and an eye on developing undervalued assets, she realized she needed a diverse team to make her plan work.

“We have a very intensive recruiting process. It’s not for the faint of heart,” says West, who got her start as a reservoir engineer at Imperial Oil before striking out on her own. “I don’t want you to just come for a job. I want you to come because you’re interested in changing the world with me.”

For West, diversity isn’t merely about gender, age and ethnicity, though she did cast a wide recruitment net to ensure she met with the best candidates, regardless of their backgrounds. She also wanted to make sure her team—29 people so far—had a variety of career experiences. A geologist, of course, has to be trained as a geologist. But she chose her land administrator, for example, partly because of his background as an entrepreneur. “He’s bringing the competencies we need, but the different experience of what he’s seen and what he’s done gives him a different toolbox that makes him an amazing contributor,” says West. “I don’t need people to think like me. That’s not very helpful. I think like me.”

The oil and gas industry has traditionally struggled at creating diverse workforces. A major report released this fall by the Calgary-based Petroleum Human Resources Council, found that while key diversity groups in oil and gas increased slightly from 2006 to 2011, the sector still employs notably fewer women, people with disabilities and immigrants compared with other sectors. In the 31 oil and gas companies surveyed, immigrants represented 10.5 percent of the workforce, while their representation in comparable core occupations across all industries was 20.8 percent. Women represent 47.8 percent of the general Canadian workforce, 11.3 percent of core occupations across all industries, but only 9.8 percent of comparable occupations in the oil and gas industry.

Yet diversity can be a major driver of innovation—not just in giving companies a global outlook, but also in fostering the radical and day-to-day innovations that set a company apart from the competition. While some leaders look to workforce diversity as a way to make up for skill shortages, others have taken a longer view that there’s a creative energy that comes from various backgrounds and skillsets cross-pollinating with each other.

“Diversity keeps organizations competitive by building effective global relationships, increasing innovation and creativity through varied perspectives, enhancing brand awareness and improving customer relations. This is why diversity is always a win-win,” says Dennis Kennedy, founder and CEO of the U.S.-based Oil and Gas Diversity Council.

Recruitment strategies, though crucial, are just the beginning. Companies can target specific occupations for diversity hires, use training programs to create new entry points or develop partnerships with diversity organizations. But broader inclusion strategies are needed to make sure the skills and insights that a diverse workforce brings are put to good use. A welcoming and supportive work environment can go a long way to mitigate the costs of hiring, training and maintaining talent who are likely to find new ways of doing things.

Some companies tackle diversity head-on. Two years ago, Calgary-based Savanna Energy Services created the position of diversity coordinator, a person who works with recruiting teams to make sure applicants from under-represented communities have a positive hiring experience and who acts as an ongoing point of contact for new hires

“We have found that companies that are more advanced link their diversity inclusion strategies to their longer-term business strategies,” says Claudine Vidallo, manager of labour market information at the Petroleum Human Resources Council. “They’re looking at increasing learning and innovation to increase productivity.”

To harness the innovative possibilities of a diverse workforce, the Petroleum Human Resources Council suggests:

  • Formulating a strategy that can be maintained throughout industry cycles
  • Building relationships with key stakeholders and community members
  • Identifying a company champion, training leaders and employees on diversity and inclusion
  • Reporting on diversity activities and progress
  • Integrating diversity and inclusion activities with other aspects of the business strategy
  • Collaborating with other companies.

Companies that get diversity and inclusion right have access to a much larger talent pool. They also capture the innovation that comes from letting employees bring all their strengths, not just their narrow field of training, to the workplace.


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