By: Michael Connors Issue: Rebuilding Our Infrastructure Section: Academia
Great economic hardship has a way of uncovering fundamental needs and weaknesses in a society that better times may have masked. What has become painfully clear over the last few years is that we must invest in the skills and knowledge of our people if we are to compete in a global market. We are in dire need of skilled human capital. Facing this challenge, educational institutions have recognized that past models and assumptions no longer apply; this is where the University of Colorado Denver (UCD) Business School steps in. Understanding that the energy industry is changing and undergoing constant transformation, Col. John Turner, Ph.D., executive director of the Global Energy Management (GEM) program at the UCD Business School, designed and implemented a curriculum that addresses some of the core needs in the industry. But he did not do this alone. Turner relentlessly pursued the involvement and input from leaders in the energy industry to create a flexible and dynamic learning environment that solves some of the industry’s core challenges. Like many other industries, energy is undergoing a generational shift that will ultimately result in the loss of much tribal knowledge, and there needs to be a way to mold talented workers into the leaders of the future. The solution, then, is a course designed to impart leadership skills and the ability to recognize industry trends for a generation of leaders in the industry. The result is a truly unique curriculum specifically designed with the needs of the industry in mind, based on a collaborative infrastructure that informs and guides students to succeed in the energy industry.
Ideally, education should be inextricably linked to the world in meaningful ways, designed to identify challenges and needs within society and give people the skills to remedy those challenges and fill the need. The UCD Business School has taken this philosophy to heart with the creation of the GEM program. Turner, a retired U.S Air Force colonel, is a man of action and knows how to move ideas into reality. When he crafted the program, he acknowledged that, “We want this to be a pragmatic degree that solves a problem in the industry and not an academic degree.” He began with help from the Canadian Consulate by calling on energy companies door-to-door, advancing the idea of a partnership between the UCD Business School and the energy industry. To achieve industry and educational goals, the program is designed around a synergetic model that is flexible enough to accommodate people in the midst of a career. Turner outlined the program thusly, “We do a 36 semester-hour program that takes 18 months to complete. It is a hybrid-online format where we bring the students and professors together at the start of each term for four days. In four days, they get 40 hours of instruction. They get to know each other, and in each class, the students do a group project on a current energy issue.”
The need for teamwork and collaboration is also highlighted in the course outline: “When you enroll in the GEM program, you will be part of a cohort, which means you and your classmates will progress through the program together. The GEM program requires that all students work in pre-determined teams each quarter.” Turner found that the hybrid approach has many benefits because it combines flexibility afforded by technology but also incorporates a social element that also helps students network with past graduates and people in the field. So not only was the program created in conjunction with the energy industry, it is implemented and administered in a truly reciprocal way.
The GEM program today is supported and endorsed by companies like Xcel, NREL, Pioneer Natural Resources, Bill Barrett, Colorado Oil & Gas Association, Blue Sun, and the Governors Energy Office, just to name a few. Representatives from these organizations sit on councils that help guide and assess the programs quality and relevance to the industry as well as the caliber of the content. One of the initial supporters to help make GEM possible was EnCana Oil and Gas, a Canadian firm specializing in oil and gas production. Rumor has it that Turner and Don McClure, EnCana’s VP of finances and business services envisioned the program over a beer. EnCana was an early contributor as well, donating $1 million to the initial development of office space and infrastructure. And with their help, the first class began in January, 2009.
Joyce Witte, community investment advisor for EnCana, assessed the importance of the program by saying, “The quality of the students coming out of the program is important for the industry as a whole because all ships rise with the same water. We feel that the industry will be led by younger people that have a keen business perspective and can make tough decisions in a global environment without the benefit of 30 years of experience under their belt. When you can bring industry into the collaboration from an educational standpoint, you are looking at current challenges, real life scenarios, and future modeling in a way that is extremely relevant to current and future decisions that they would need to make in the business environment.”
Witte noted that academia is often based on theory and tends to have a historical perspective. Problems and models are examined, and solved and then those examples are taught over and over again. The GEM program is based on an intuitive approach to the industry that assumes dynamic, fluid and ever-changing realities that face the industry, and this is GEM’s inherent value.
Looking forward, Turner pointed out that it is not just companies in the traditional fuels arena interested in supporting the program. Several representatives from the renewable energy industry sit on advisory boards for GEM. When asked why supporters might be interested in establishing renewable energy courses, he remarked, “We’ve had people like Vestas (on the board), and we have used people from the bio-fuels and solar area. We are working with REpower, and the governor’s energy office. They have been a big supporter from the beginning. About 40 percent of our students are looking at careers in renewables and that number has been increasing. But it started with the oil and gas industry.”
Right from the get-go EnCana, Forrest Oil, Pioneer and Banko Petroleum all insisted that the curriculum balance traditional with renewables for two reasons: All of the companies are expecting that they will go into the renewables someday and they want their people to know the right stuff, and because, right now the traditional oil and gas competitors and the companies want to better understand what they do.
Essentially, the GEM program recognizes the capricious environment of energy, energy policy and production, and is designed to accommodate those changes and give its graduates the abilities to recognize larger trends in the industry. These skills help graduates move into higher positions within the company and guide their organizations through the energy mine fields. Consequently, it is no wonder 45 percent of GEM’s graduates receive a promotion or raise within six months of completing the program. Turner noted that they had looked at programs all over the world and the GEM program is truly one of a kind. By incorporating the best practices in education with the enterprising and entrepreneurial spirit of the folks in the energy sector, UCD’s GEM program is a full-fledged success with a dazzlingly bright future.