Can an MBA Spark a Career in the Energy Industry?

Specialist MBA programs look to train managerial talent for the growing and rapidly changing global energy sector.

Anyone who has been through a blackout knows: once the electricity goes out, stores close down, trains stop running, and the lights go out. In some cases - like when the heating shuts off in the winter or hospitals run short of electricity - energy cuts can have dire consequences.

Energy drives our economies and lifestyles. With global energy demand expected to increase by 50 percent over the next twenty years, energy's importance is unlikely to change anytime soon. By 2030, China and India, for example, are expected to consume twice the energy they do today.

Like in any growing industry, there will be a demand for executives with solid management skills and knowledge of the energy business. Some energy-focused MBA programs have been developed to fill this need. Most of these programs emerged in places with abundant natural energy resources.

Places like the Scottish coast, for example. The Oil and Gas MBA program at Aberdeen Business School appeals to students interested in advancing their careers in the offshore oil and gas industries. Unlike a traditional MBA program, it may not be a place for people in search of an entirely new career path.

"I wouldn't presume that someone who does an MBA here wants a career change," says Allan Scott, who directs the Oil and Gas Management MBA program at Aberdeen Business School. Along with a focus on the local industries, Scott says his program equips students - many who have worked in the industry for over a decade - with the skills that traditional MBA programs teach.

"The most important thing (that students are) looking for is to boost their own confidence and decisionmaking when they are dealing with finance, a supply chain manager, an engineer, or whatever," says Scott. "A senior geologist may find themselves managing twenty or thirty people, but they don't have any management training, so they come for an MBA to help them with that."

Another oil- and gas-focused MBA programs is offered at the University of Dundee, as well as a few Executive MBA (EMBA) programs like those at the Dubai branch of London's Cass Business School, and the Stockholm School of Economics campus in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Meanwhile a handful of programs, like the Energy and Natural Resources MBA program at the University of Alberta School of Business, focus more broadly on the energy industry, as well as the policy and international context of energy production and consumption.

"We are a business school. We like markets," says Joseph Doucet, who directs the program at the University of Alberta. "We want people to be entrepreneurial and so on, but they have to understand which markets they operate in."

"Even if you're a die-hard capitalist and going out in the market, you have to realize that strategy is very closely tied to government policy," says Doucet.

The University of Alberta and the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business - which offers an MBA with an energy concentration - make use of their location in a large Canadian province where natural resources and the environment play such a prominent role in the provincial economy.

Developing an "overall" understanding of the energy industry is a must for managers, according to David Elmes, director of a new part-time Global Energy MBA program at Warwick Business School. Rapid changes affecting energy production, consumption, and regulation are forcing energy managers to look across a broader portfolio of energy.

"You're now playing in a much more complicated arena, where you have to understand multiple sources of energy, changing roles in the industry, and how addressing climate change will transform the industry," says Elmes.

"A large part of the energy industry did not recruit very many people in the late 1990's and early 2000's when it was relatively easy to find and produce energy, and meet demand," adds Elmes. "Now that things have become more complicated, companies realize they need to pay particular attention to the development of people in early management, middle management, and heading toward executive levels. They don't have many of them."

One of the next "big things" for entrepreneurs looks to be alternative, renewable energy sources like solar, wind, and biofuels - all of which have enjoyed tremendous growth in recent years. With climate change, sustainability, and energy independence big topics these days, governments and companies are investing heavily in "green" technologies. Perhaps it's no surprise to see an increasing number of electives, faculty, centers, and MBA student clubs dedicated to clean energy at top-tier business schools like Michigan Ross, MIT Sloan, and Harvard.

Some MBA programs have even begun energy specializations. The University of Texas McCombs School of Business, for example, offers an Energy Finance specialization, while a handful of EMBA programs concentrate on energy, including the BI Norwegian School of Management, COPPEAD Graduate School of Business at the Federal University of Rio de Janiero, and the University of Houston's GEMBA program in Beijing.

One can only guess how the anticipated "clean energy revolution" will impact business school curricula or the number of specialized MBA programs on the market. With or without a revolution, it is reasonably clear that energy suppliers will continue to need skilled managers who can help tap new sources, reach new markets, and keep the lights on.

See a list of the top 10 MBA programs for a career in the energy sector.

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