APTITUDE VS. EDUCATION & EXPERIENCE

(above) Author Robert Coward with his crew in Qidong, China

I challenge everyone reading this article to search as many job listings as you wish. In them you will find the usual suspects. They are as common as mosquitoes in a swamp. There is the job title, the list of responsibilities that come with the job, the educational requirements, the certifications expected (if any), and then the specificity of experience the hiring manager is looking for. By ‘specificity’, I mean a focused experience in the industry, product, system, etc. the prospect will be overlooking or involved with. For example, let us imagine a job listing that will include the manufacture of a type of renewable energy system or component. The recruiter, or HR manager of the actual employer, will mention that some range of years in experience is required for that specific arena of activity. There will be the educational requirement that will, in the majority of cases, require an undergraduate or graduate degree of some magnitude pertinent to the discipline the employer or recruiter is looking for.

What will be most difficult to find, and quite rare if you do, is any mention of ‘aptitude’. The word does exist in some job listings, but this ‘aptitude’ animal is quite elusive and infrequently seen in captivity within the vast majority of them. The definition for the word is “capability; ability; innate or acquired capacity for something; talent.” Aptitude must never be understood as something that automatically accompanies education or experience. Any of us who have been in the workforce for just a few years can attest that education and/or experience does not necessarily produce aptitude. For example, several years ago I was working for an engineering company as project manager. One of the items needed for the job was a 225 ft. bridge span that would connect two offshore breasting dolphins. The depth of the water was a little more than 100 ft., and the bridge spans would not possess supports from the ocean floor along its length. Each end was to rest, securely attached, on the dolphins. The engineer in charge of this design possessed a PhD, and was a certified P.E. He spent many hours on the design, and walked in my office with the manufacturing drawings, placing them on my desk. Before he could walk out, I stopped him and asked if this was how the bridge spans were to be built. He replied that it was. His design was to build the spans straight, instead of possessing a convex curvature (like we see with empty flatbeds pulled by 18 wheelers) to accommodate the weight of the structure in the mid-range of the span. I pointed out that his design, if built that way and installed as same, would cause the spans to produce a concave effect from the sheer weight of steel, weakening the integrity of the entire span and quite possibly create a situation where they could not be properly secured to the dolphins. It only took a few seconds for him to realize his error. It was aptitude which immediately noticed the flaw in the design, for I am not an engineer and only hold a Master of Arts degree.

Engineers build civilizations, and they are needed in every aspect of building them. They have an adept grasp for mathematics, stresses, pressures, loads, chemicals, and whatever else you wish to name. But they are not infallible, and many is the time I have seen where an additional eye, or eyes, is needed that is not so focused on design; but practicality, field operability, fit for purpose, ease of repair (too many engineers design things with little thought given to future repairs or regular maintenance…just look under your car or truck hood); cost overruns; scheduling conflicts; and contractual conflicts that may occur, for all of these are part and parcel to a project and must be considered. It is not the engineer’s job to be acclimated to all of these things, and this is why project managers are necessary who have an aptitude for aligning all of these aspects to a fruitful and successful completion.

One of the main reasons aptitude is not considered is because in many cases it is an intangible commodity. Aptitude is almost always an innate capability that isn’t necessarily learned or acquired (though it can be), as mentioned in the definition. Plus, aptitude can cross over to other industries, and is not specific to oil and gas, renewables, petrochemical, nuclear, or otherwise. One who possesses a high aptitude for things mechanical can thrive in any of these industries. A project manager, any project manager, will not be, nor profess (if he or she is honest), to be an expert in every field. In fact, no one should be looking for such a person because they do not exist.

What most job-seekers run into is what I refer as “Professional Hiring Manager Tunnel Vision”. Need someone with experience who can manage the quality aspects of construction of 356 massive pipe racks, along with the arctic pipe, built for use in the Siberian arctic? Must this person be able to speak Mandarin if they are being built in China? Must he have experience working in Asia? If so, then I would not have been Yard Quality Manager of the project, who successfully managed the quality control of this massive undertaking.

What was particularly difficult in this setting, is that we were building gigantic jigsaw puzzles that would not be put together until arrival in Siberia. The arctic pipe to be situated in these racks was being built 120 kilometers away, and would never see their final placement until arrival on site. Of the seven racks planned for test fit, only four were completed. The workmanship and quality were so well performed, the client advised the other three were not necessary.

(above) One of only four pipe racks (356 total were manufactured) assembled for test fit, Qidong, China. One column was 3 centimeters out of tolerance. Accepted by Client.
(above) Author Robert Coward surveying arctic pipe construction in Zhangjiagang, China.

Need someone with experience managing the manufacture of an intermediate open-water riser intervention system? Must this person have an in-depth knowledge of all the components and more than fifty interfaces, with them being built all over Europe and America, without the time allotment to conduct a complete system integration test before first use? If so, then I would not have been a project manager of this endeavor. At the end of the four-year project, everything fit, there were no safety incidents, and the system worked perfectly to set thirty-five subsea trees off the coast of Nigeria. By the way, we garnered an additional $11 million USD in change orders from our client.

(above) SIT of LRP/EDP to Subsea Tree, Aberdeen, Scotland.

Experience is important. Education is important. But what is most important is aptitude. Aptitude is where success comes from, more than anything else. Simply because one is an engineer does not make them a good prospect for being a manager. It doesn’t disqualify them either, but it shouldn’t be the end all/be all of the decision when choosing one. Engineers engineer. Managers manage. Both work in conjunction with the other to produce a quality product that is fit for purpose, uncompromised in its ability to perform as designed, safe in its performance for man, animal and environment, timely in its delivery, and at or under budget.

Any job listing that proposes the prospect must be knowledgeable and experienced and educated in every nuance, every niche, every microcosm and detail of the responsibilities expected, is a pipe dream of all pipe dreams. And because of this ‘tunnel’ vision, many who are qualified to perform at a high level, with the aptitude for managing projects of all types and in a wide range of industries, are left on the cutting room floor. And more is the pity.

(above) Author Robert Coward in Qidong, China.

Author Robert Coward has more than thirty-five years of experience in the oil and gas industry as Quality Manager, Project Manager, VP of Operations, and has worked on projects all over the world. He holds a B.A. and M.A. from Regent University, Virginia Beach, Virginia; is a published author of several novels; a published poet; and an accomplished public speaker. He presently lives in Houston, Texas.

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I am an industrial worker, I hold certificates and have worked across the nation.

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I am an industrial worker, I hold certificates and have worked across the nation.

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