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Attracting digital talent for petrochemicals?

Published by , Senior Editor
Hydrocarbon Engineering,

According to Deloitte, the future success of most chemical companies relies on three areas: growth and innovation, performance and cost optimisation, sustainability and the circular economy. Central to much of this success is industrial digitalisation, a hugely exciting transformation that is rapidly stimulating jobs growth. Respondents to the ‘Global Energy Talent Index’ (GETI) 2021 agree, with over two-thirds of industry professionals stating advances in engineering techniques and technologies present the most important opportunity to the sector, while a further third identified new digitally enabled skills and competencies as another.

Altogether, these new growth areas, and opportunities for petrochemical companies to get ahead, are creating a surge in demand for digitally minded employees that can help accelerate digitalisation within the hydrocarbon processing industry.

COVID-19, digitalisation and talent acquisition

Despite all this excitement for the future, COVID-19 has created a year of mixed fortunes for the petrochemicals industry. While it is positive that most pure-play petrochemicals companies fared rather well, even seeing an uptick in demand for certain products, this has certainly not been the case for all. The reality was that many boards at larger integrated energy companies were faced with taking difficult decisions including layoffs, pay and benefits cuts, and restructuring that significantly impacted their employee base and company culture, and ultimately tarnished their brand.

In any industry, talent acquisition is predicated on the ability of a company to weave a compelling narrative of its brand and its core values. Yet, while the petrochemicals industry is no stranger to rebounding from downturns and healing its image with digital transformation underway, the landscape is beginning to look quite different.

In the context of digital transformation, the industry faces stiff competition from inspiring brands in rival sectors such as renewables and consumer-tech as well as the Googles and Amazons who all equally need bright, digitally minded hires. If petrochemicals companies want to obtain competitive advantage to attract the best talent, do they now need to position themselves as the SpaceX of the tech world?

If digital transformation is a top priority for the company, then the short answer is ‘yes’. For college graduates especially, the state of a company’s brand can make or break whether they will be attracted to working with them. One way to satisfy this need is to make the company more widely relevant and position them as a leader of the future. For that, you need a multi-brand approach.

Becoming widely relevant

Hydrocarbons companies need to get closer to the pool of candidates that they want to hire to meet their digital transformation goals. Every candidate is a consumer, and almost all consumers are inspired by innovation. In fact, interest in the sector and innovation were the second and third most popular reasons why respondents to GETI 2021 said they chose to work in the petrochemicals industry, after career progression.

That said, the story of innovation can be a difficult one to tell for a large, historically industrial, petrochemicals company with a single, or few brands. So, a multi-brand approach to brand strategy, by splitting the brand up to connect better with consumers and for positioning the business as a pioneering, attractive employer. For one, it allows those companies to showcase their technology partners and product innovations, in turn helping candidates connect the dots from what they experience in the world back to the petrochemicals industry.

There are thousands of applications of petrochemicals that can be found in the home but few consumers stop to think about the supplier of the raw materials. Petrochemicals companies can gain substantially from making their brands more relevant by colouring in that dotted line between their products and everyday life to help potential hires better understand the business.

There are some companies that are doing this phenomenally well - BASF, DOW, ExxonMobil Chemicals, LyondellBasell, and SABIC to name a few. When you interact with them digitally through their websites or on LinkedIn, for example, you gain a real understanding of the impact of the products that they manufacture, and how they approach corporate social responsibility (CSR) – be it diversity and inclusion, environmental programmes, carbon recapture projects or product lifecycle.

Society recognises that all companies need to be in the race to net-zero, so having CSR plan goals, progress and results visible to all is very powerful – it is what connects with today’s consumer, and today’s talent. There is no longer a question about whether employees would rather work for a responsible and environmentally friendly company – it is a given.

So, it follows that companies who fail to create a strong digital presence and brand strategy to bring consumers on their sustainability journey, will be overlooked. That is because so many of us now make our buying decisions based on our digital experiences and research, often without even contacting the company. This situation is no different for petrochemicals companies when competing to attract, hire and retain the best talent in our very competitive digital world.

Sustainable credentials

Similarly, a multi-brand approach can also help petrochemicals companies leverage the environmental credentials of certain products to improve talent acquisition. Many college graduates are deeply interested in improving the world around them and having a positive impact on sustainability. A 2019 study found that three quarters of millennials would accept a smaller salary to work for a company that is more environmentally responsible. At the same time, the petrochemicals industry is doing a huge amount of work to improve sustainability and lifecycle impact of products. Yet those results are often buried in a CSR report only ever to be read by investors. By being able to demonstrate sustainable product innovation through a multi-brand approach, petrochemicals businesses can better connect with bright and curious minds through the values that matter most to them.

If a multi-brand approach does not make sense in the context of the business, the alternative is to have a strong angle on the product applications raw materials are developed into. Where possible, choosing ‘on trend’ product applications, such as the petrochemical components in electric vehicles for example, will again drive a greater sense of relevance while tying the brand to innovation.

As with previous shocks to the sector, once the dust settles from COVID-19, petrochemicals companies will want to take stock of any damage to their brand. However, for those with industrial digitalisation ambitions, it will not simply be about repair. As graduate hiring programmes ramp up once more, now is the opportune time to realign brands to attract the hires needed for digitalisation. A refreshed brand strategy will be crucial for success, and not just one that can edge out other petrochemical companies, but one that can compete for digital talent on the global stage.

Written by Michael Sanches, Consultancy Director, Airswift.

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