The oil and natural gas industry faces a huge talent crunch in the next five years, with 50% of the industry workforce eligible to retire coupled with dwindling enrollment in undergraduate petroleum engineering programs. However, Microsoft Corp. CEO Steve Ballmer said that savvy companies should use growing energy information technology to bridge the generation gap and to secure an ample Web-based global workforce.

“How do you capture important skills so they can be passed to tomorrow’s engineers? There’s great potential for software to get past that bridge,” said Ballmer. Better online spreadsheet-management tools would help companies keep track of information that would otherwise be lost as people retire, and using technology, especially Internet-based solutions, energy staff could operate in remote locations.

“Energy and technology drive the global economy,” said Ballmer. “Both are driven by a relentless need for innovation. Oil and gas companies are constantly challenged to discover and tap new energy sources and do it more efficiently.” The Microsoft CEO said that tapping new resources “requires innovation, like the digital oil field of the future, where producers can add to their worldwide resource base by integrating intelligent technologies…real-time drilling, smart wells, 3-D reservoir modeling.”

Ballmer, who has worked with Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates since the company began, said his company’s big long-term investments in research and development (R&D) “have powered our growth and generated more than 3,000 patents. A lot of our R&D today is focused on things that will provide big benefits to the energy industry…breakthroughs in sensor technology, data integration, speech and video interfaces, Web services and more.” The “lifeblood of our business is the R&D spend. In a sense, you could say all we have to live with is our innovation.”

The energy industry is “spread far and wide, as far and wide as any industry around. How do you bring together the best ideas that the engineers in Kuala Lumpur, in Nigeria, in Houston, in Dhahran — how do you bring those best ideas together and let people communicate and collaborate in some kind of way that is reasonable relative to time zone, relative to real time interactive communication, relative to information sharing?” he asked.

Microsoft’s philosophy toward innovation could be successfully translated into any energy industry’s mission, said Ballmer, but “the industry has got to be willing to invest in some flowers that may not bloom or may take a long time to bloom. I think if I were to use an analogy from your industry, we are less wildcatters than we are tenacious pursuers of important ideas.”

Ballmer said, “we’re at the dawning of an era, really, where software and information technology can be plugged together in the same way, so you can take the kinds of generic innovations that we bring with the specific innovations that people in this business bring, tailor them in unique ways for any company…and really have that be part of the lifeblood of building a whole new scale and level of innovation in this industry.”

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