Petroleum engineers Often seen aspart of an aging industry that's set in its ways, oil companiesneed to show they can offer thrilling tech careers to keep recentgraduates from joining start-ups or giants such as Facebool.(Photo: Shutterstock)

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Every few weeks, in a glass-walled office with a picture of anoil platform filling the east side, an unusual conversation takesplace.

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Bernard Looney, the 48-year-old who controls BP Plc's massiveoil and gas production, sits down with a 26-year-oldpetrophysicist, Connor Tann, to get answers to a few fundamentalquestions. Among the most important: How can the oil behemoth keep up with the times?

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“There's a lot of doom and gloom about the sector, and what'shappening in the world in general, and all sorts of things,” Looneysaid. “A lot of your days get consumed in stuff like that, and tospend an hour with Connor, where he is the best and the brightest,it's energizing.”

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Tann, who has a masters in experimental and theoretical physicsfrom the University of Cambridge, is the picture of what Big Oilwants to become: smart, progressive and tech savvy. The industry isbanking on adopting those qualities to keep it relevant throughoutan “extraordinarily hard, complex” transition toward low-carbonfuels, Looney said.

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He also hopes to learn from Tann the key to making BP cool.Often seen as part of an aging industry that's set in its ways, oilcompanies need to show they can offer thrilling tech careers tokeep recent graduates from joining start-ups or giants such asFacebook Inc., where employees rarely have offices and break roomshave ping pong tables and beer kegs.

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“If we can keep people like Connor enthused, learning, growing,they'll all tell their people: 'Hey, it's not an oil and gascompany. It's as much a tech company as it is anything else,”'Looney said.

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The lack of skilled workers, along with increased competitionand crude oil prices, was a top concern for oil executives in asurvey by energy and maritime services company DNV GL AS publishedin January.

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“Many engineers are drawn to jobs in 'greener' energyindustries, while data scientists—much sought-after following theindustry's increased focus on digitalization—are often drawn totechnology firms and other digitally driven companies,” DNV said inthe report.

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About a year ago, BP took the unorthodox step of inviting adozen 20-somethings to regular meetings with senior executives.Murray Auchincloss, chief financial officer of the upstreambusiness, Helmut Schuster, head of human resources, and GordonBirrell, in charge of carbon, have young mentors.

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“I just couldn't believe it. I was flabbergasted” when asked,said Tann, looking at Looney across a round table in theexecutive's office. “I think you were very good at putting me at myease and letting me speak openly. It was useful, otherwise I wouldstill be panicking.”

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There are other advantages of keeping up to date withfast-moving technology trends. Cutting-edge tech can save both costand time. Earlier this year, BP said an algorithm developed by afresh graduate in Houston helped locate an extra 1.4 billionbarrels of oil in two different fields in the Gulf of Mexico. Thecompany wants more of this.

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The transformation has its challenges. Gigantic oil companieshave been around for decades and have their set ways and processes.Some are built to avoid accidents that involve the highly volatileand flammable products they work with. Silicon Valley, on the otherhand, is said to live by the mantra “move fast and breakthings.”

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The fossil-fuel industry is at the “mid-range” in adopting newtech, David Womack, who directs oil and gas strategy at IBM, saidat a London oil conference last month. The sluggishness, driven bysafety fears, may frustrate young recruits.

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There are also concerns about whether the industry can withstandthe societal changes associated with climate change, something Tannsaid he considered deeply before joining BP.

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“That was a criteria,” he said. “I wanted to work somewherewhere people were very open and honest about the science of thingsand what needs to be done.”

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A year in, Looney said the mentoring program has helped him,among other things, learn that BP's employees mostly want tools tomake their jobs easier and faster, more than “shiny, front-end”projects. He's learned that data science geeks hone their skillsthrough online competitions, or group programming events calledhackathons.

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BP intends to expand the program as part of a broader push to“modernize” and transform the company.

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“Unless we change some of these things, I don't think we will beable to keep people like Connor,” Looney said. “He trusted us tojoin us and I don't take that for granted, especially in today'sworld. He can do all sorts of things.”

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