Outlook on energy careers in 2016

Malcom Riley

Malcom Riley, Sector Director for Energy & Technology Sector Careers in Fuqua’s Career Management Center

The energy sector has been the focus of dramatic change in recent years—from the shale gas boom to the ups and downs of the renewable energy market to the tumultuous drop in oil prices in the last year. These sector upheavals have brought uncertainty in the market, but they haven’t dampened enthusiasm for leadership careers in the sector—in fact, these industry changes might mean more opportunities for MBAs who can leverage their skills to help companies navigate through this time of change.

As the new year begins, we asked Malcom Riley, Sector Director for Energy Careers in Fuqua’s Career Management Center to share his thoughts on the hiring landscape in the energy sector.

The energy sector has not historically been a significant focus of MBA recruiting. What’s changed in recent years?

One of the major issues the energy industry is dealing with right now is the aging of their senior management. In the past, energy companies tended to promote from within, focusing more on training those with technical and scientific expertise to become managers. But I think along the way—particularly within the last 10-15 years—they’ve started to explore the value that MBAs can add. And, as MBA graduates have gone into those companies in functions like finance, operations, and corporate development, I think they’ve been able to prove the added value that an MBA can bring to the table, particularly as the business challenges that the companies are facing grow in complexity.

What makes the energy sector a good industry for MBAs to consider?

Energy underpins the fundamental aspects of each of our lives. Everyone needs energy. Energy is progress. It’s what equips communities to be able to flourish economically. The opportunity to work on issues with such relevance to society is one of the things that makes this an exciting field to work in. It’s also a time of interesting challenges and consolidation for the industry. So, from an MBA perspective, being able to be involved with some of the biggest deals in history, to do what’s necessary to be able to ensure that energy companies are successful and sustainable – MBAs are going to play a vital role in that process in terms of looking at financials, in terms of analyzing risk, and those are the types of strategic challenges that MBA students want to be a part of.

Where are the hot jobs for MBAs in the energy sector right now?

I think that most of the hot jobs that you’re going to find are going to be in the finance area. Finance is a function that energy companies have identified as a key area where MBAs can add value—whether that’s looking at going to a new market, setting up the project finance on a new LNG [liquefied natural gas] plant, or analyzing an acquisition opportunity. These kinds of projects are going to have a number of different complex inputs, a number of different relationships to manage. I think that from within a finance role, you get a front row seat in helping a company make the decisions that are actually going to help move the business forward, and I think that it’s going to leverage the skills you get at Fuqua. Beyond finance, I think we’re seeing a growing area of need in the decision analysis department. In the same way that finance is critical, decision analysis can support that financial analysis. So I think that students who build competencies in data and finance are going to be very well equipped to be competitive in these companies.

Has the downturn in oil and gas prices in the last year changed the employment landscape for MBAs at all?

I think that, as you would expect, the low price environment is primarily impacting the oil and gas companies, but it also has a trickle-down effect on some of the related industry verticals, such as utilities. What we’ve seen this year is that the major oil and gas companies are not pausing or halting hiring, they’re just taking a much more conservative outlook. So, if they had a class of 6 new MBA hires last year, they may instead be taking a class of only 3 this year.

Does a student have to have an engineering background to be successful in this sector?

No, you don’t need to have an engineering or scientific background, although it does help. I think over the last few years, our MBA graduates have been able to show that you can be a strong candidate in this sector if you have a really strong skillset—whether that skillset is in finance, whether it’s in operations or decision sciences, or another area. We’ve seen students with this kind of functional depth do well. The other thing that these students have in common is that they acquire a tremendous number of extracurricular experiences during the MBA program, in order to demonstrate both their interest in energy and their competency in understanding the unique business challenges of the sector. Students who do not have a technical background may need to do more while a student to build that industry expertise.

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