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Talent still needed in industry

The proponents of automation in onshore drilling acknowledge that there are disadvantages to overcome.

Risk-averse players, for example, may shy away from new, untested technology and rig workers sensitive to the security of their jobs may resist the adoption of some technologies.

“When we talk about the driller and the driller’s acceptance, he’s naturally going to think that you’re trying to replace him,” Precision Drilling vice president of sales for rig technology Duane Cuku said. 

However, Cuku added: “This isn’t about autonomous drilling. That’s a long way out, if ever. What we are trying to do is automate processes that allow the driller to be a driller again.”

In fact, operators might find themselves relying more and more on automated processes to do the jobs of what could be a dwindling oil and gas workforce in the future. 

According to a recent survey by consultants EY, only 44% of US teenagers trust the industry, making them less likely to pursue oil and gas as a career.

"If the perceptions against the industry are strongly negative, it's going to be hard to develop these projects and it's going to be hard to find the talent necessary to build out these projects over time," EY US strategy principal John Hartung told reporters in Houston last month.

Companies face other recruiting challenges as the sector becomes more automated and they need to attract employees with different skills to those they have relied on in the past. 

"There's a lot of upside opportunity to really step back and automate and apply technology and reduce reliance on a generation who may not want to work in this field anyway," Hartung said.

EY's US people advisory services principal Rachel Everaard said companies will need more people with analytic and digital skills in the future, including data scientists and automation experts. 

That could mean stiff competition for talent with other industries, especially the technology sector.