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Interview

Jose Luis Roces – Rector, Institute of Technology Buenos Aires, Argentina

06.10.2016 / Energyboardroom

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The rector of the Institute of Technology Buenos Aires (ITBA), one of Argentina’s leading universities, elaborates on how the global landslide in commodity prices has changed their educational paradigm from open course to in-company education and highlights collaboration opportunities for academia and industry at large.  

You became rector of the institute shortly after the global landslide in commodity prices, how has the face of the industry changed ever since?

Companies now prefer to maintain their staff and prepare them for the future via academic courses; some of the major oil companies in the country are participating in our in-company courses already!

We noticed the landslide in commodity prices through the reduced number of students with their fees being paid by the industry. Prior to the landslide in commodity prices some 75 percent of our students had funding from an industry player, this has sharply declined and thus strongly affected the number of people enrolling in our open courses. The effects are quite similar to other industrial crises experience in Argentina in 2001 and 2005 respectively. Meanwhile, however, the requests for our in-company course have risen increasingly, which is due to the learning of companies in aforementioned crises. In those previous crises, the companies had significant redundancies which led to more challenges in the aftermath. The companies now prefer to maintain their staff and prepare them for the future via academic courses; some of the major oil companies in the country are participating in our in-company courses already!

What are the skills and know-how most in-demand from the Argentinian oil and gas industry?

One of the main challenges that Argentina’s oil and gas companies face is the unmet demand of engineers. Especially oil engineers are scarce, hence why the companies have started to transform technical staff and engineers of other specialties into petroleum engineers. We have tailored a program which provides all academic and technical support needed for the industry to succeed in this transformation process. Obviously the participants need to have a technical degree in order to partake to a satisfactory level, however, a prior engineering degree is not required.

How feasible is it to change the specialty of a technician or engineer within the oil and gas industry?

For us this is highly feasible. Having said the former, we need to distinguish engineers in the upstream segment and engineers in the downstream segment, as these are two completely different arenas, also from an engineering perspective. The upstream segment requires specialized knowledge from engineers, hence why the transformation process’ applicability is limited. In general downstream and distribution systems, however, it is relatively simple to equip, for instance, an industrial engineer with the right skills and knowledge to exceed in these areas as well.

In Argentina there is one engineering graduate per 6000 inhabitants, in Brazil it is one per 4500 inhabitants and in China one per 2000. Additionally, every year thousands of employment opportunities in the wider area of engineering in Argentina remain unfulfilled. How do you explain the discrepancy between the demand in the industry and the seeming disinterest in this area from young Argentinians?

Frankly speaking, this is a comparison of apples with peaches. What you call an engineer in China is what we call a technician in Argentina; there is nothing wrong with technicians, however, I would like to highlight that there are significant differences in the quality of engineering education in both countries. We had Chinese education facilities interested in having engineers educated here. Upon laying out our mandatory minimum program, which foresees at least two years of general science education, one year of technical orientation and another two years of further specialization, the Chinese education facilities backed out saying this was too long of a progress. In China, an engineering degree takes a mere three years to obtain. Therefore, we need to pay attention to what we call an engineer in answering this question. This controversy is also significant in between the educational stakeholders in the country and the general industry, which aligns with the Chinese in wanting to have an educational shortcut. This, however, will not change. We have a tradition of educational accreditation to ensure graduates are equipped with the knowledge and skills to genuinely call themselves engineers!

Secondly, it is true that in Argentina graduates of STEM degrees –although of high quality—only account to 22 to 24 percent of all graduates, opposing approximately 76 percent in social sciences. In this context, I can say that as country we have realized the challenge of increasing our graduates in the various STEM degrees and are already on the right path of increasing that number; we, as university, can see results already in increased entry requests.

While remaining traditional, do you see leeway for collaboration with the industry?

Yes—and quite a lot too! Especially for us, meaningful industry collaborations are very simple to achieve. For instance, when I became vice rector for the university in 2002, the first issue the board of the university confronted me with was that the petroleum engineering course was not having enough applicants and faced closure. I used my industry contacts to gather the most significant companies of the Argentinian oil and gas industry together and presented this challenge.Together with the industry players, we set-up a program to enhance visibility of this career path and moreover gained support from the industry to add value to the course in the form of field trips, industrial guest lecturers, funding and more. In only five years, we achieved a complete turnaround of the perception of this career by young Argentinians! In short, there is huge potential for academia and industry to collaborate and establish win-win situations. Today, for instance, we have tremendous support from the industry in terms of research and technological equipment. What’s more, as university we also offer commercial services to the oil and gas industry, mostly carried out by staff with the help of students!

What kind of services does the university offer to the oil and gas industry?

Mostly seismic studies regarding the rock quality, reservoir size and more – generally surrounding various types of exploration activities. Most recently we have published a book on Vaca Muerta, regarding all facades there are to the second largest shale reservoir in the world. The major finding was, that Argentina not only has the resources but also the technology to fully exploit Vaca Muerta’s vast potential—all that’s missing is the financing!

The new government led by President Macri has attracting foreign direct investment high on its Agenda, how do you perceive recent structural reforms implemented to attract these investments?

First of all, I would like to highlight the tremendously difficult task at President Maurico Macri’s hands; he has to re-establish a great amount of institutional trust into Argentina and I believe in only ten months as president, he has already accomplished much. Secondly, it is important that we change rules and regulations across all industries which were created under a populist government still hindering economic prosperity. Thus far, all the relevant economic variables have already changed for the better, however, it is still a big mess which is in need of a clean-up! This is absolutely mandatory in order to create a trustworthy system. In my opinion, we are now in a phase where we can change the worlds perception of Argentina!

What is the Argentinian message you would like to be heard around the world?

We have incredible talent in Argentina and we have a tremendous amount of resources; what we need more corporations, businesses and institutes coming to our country. If you are a corporation with a strong culture, clear objectives and the right margin practices you will find it very easy to do business here. Adaption is embedded in Argentinian culture! As population, we are as diverse as it can get, having our roots in Latin countries, European countries, Arabian countries, the US, the wider region and more.

What’s more, I am a firm believer in the right management and in Argentina the right management capacities are yet to be fully established. We need to reshape the management paradigm in the country through young Argentinians, and corporations can —and should— partake in this process! In Argentina, we have a proverb that says there are four different kind of countries in the world: developed countries, less developed countries, Japan and Argentina; Japan because it has the right people but not the resources and Argentina because we have the resources but not the right people.

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