Redefining the Competency Formula

True competency may seem to be an ethereal concept that changes depending on who you ask. Most will tell you what makes a person "competent" is either their practical experience or theoretical knowledge, while a few will tell you it's a combination of both. The truth is, neither one of them is technically wrong, but they are missing something: personal attributes. Sometimes referred to as soft skills, they can make or break an otherwise suitable candidate.

As the light begins to shine at the end of the tunnel and Oil & Gas (O&G) operations begin to ramp up, recruiters are faced with the challenge of filling up positions quickly. But as we discussed in Reshaping the O&G Body of Knowledge, this may be tougher than it sounds despite the misleading abundance of candidates. As a recruiter, how do you identify the best candidates to match probably generic or outdated role descriptions? As a candidate, how do you stand out from the stack full of resumes? The answers to both of these questions may depend on how you answer this one: How do you define "competency"? You may be surprised how much the answers differ depending on who you ask.

Some believe competency = experience, suggesting that those who have the most years in the industry are "more competent" than those who are just starting out. While this may be true in specific circumstances, it is not necessarily accurate. For example, I have met several Senior Subsea Engineers with 20+ years of experience in the industry who "knew everything there is to know" and "have seen it and done that" on equipment from a particular vendor. But when placed in an asset equipped with different vendors, they themselves acknowledged they have no idea what they are doing and rely on the younger engineers to support them. Practical experience is a key attribute, but does not necessarily mean a person is "competent".

Others will tell you competency = theoretical knowledge, suggesting that those with higher education degrees are "more competent" than those with out. Again, while this may be true in specific circumstances, more times than not this turns out to be a fallacy. I had an engineering degree when I started my career in the energy industry, but I knew that piece of paper meant nothing without practical experience. That is why I chose to start in the field learning how the systems were actually being used in the real world and what their limitations were before I moved to engineering. Most of my friends and colleagues who did not have practical experience when they started recognize they either learned the hard way or simply got lucky. Being "super smart" and achieving the highest educational degrees does not mean you are competent.

So, is competency = practical experience + theoretical knowledge? This has been the long-standing definition of competency for quite some time, but has recently come under scrutiny. To give you an idea why, consider whether you would like these individuals in your team: a "toxic" person who focuses on gossiping, talks behind people's backs, and generally brings morale down; an extreme introvert who keeps to his or her self and never participates in team activities; or a self-centered individual obsessed with taking credit for everything that will stifle any efforts from others unless he or she is the center of attention. The point here is that just because someone has both experience and knowledge does not mean they are necessarily a good fit.

Enter soft skills, the underrated yet highly desirable attributes that can make or break a candidate. There is arguably no better spokesperson for soft skills than Mike Rowe, host of the shows Dirty Jobs and Somebody's Gotta Do It, among others. Which skills and how you rank them will vary depending on the position, but the fact is that when faced with multiple candidates that exhibit both experience and knowledge, soft skills can be the deciding factors. Soft skills are so coveted nowadays that some companies would rather pass on highly experienced and knowledgeable candidates for someone that exhibits the right personal attributes required for the job. This is because they know "brilliance" does not always imply "effectiveness".

As the energy industry enters a new era, how we define what constitutes a competent workforce matters more than ever. Much like a system, true competency is a combination of factors that together form the individual as a whole. Regardless of how you weigh them: practical experience + theoretical knowledge + soft skills = Competence. If you want to stand out as a candidate, or want to select the right person for the job as a recruiter, you need to evaluate the person as a whole. More or less of any one factor does not necessarily mean an advantage or disadvantage. What matters is how they all come together.

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