Pipeline Inheritors: YPP Aims to Fill Knowledge Gap in an Aging Industry

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Look around. Your colleagues are getting older. Who’s going to take care of the oil and gas pipeline industry when they’re gone?

Enter the Young Pipeline Professionals (YPP USA), an association established in 2015 to confront the growing concern of the “silver tsunami” — the cataclysmic event where aging veterans leave the industry and take their expertise with them. If you’ve paid attention to the pipeline industry over the last decade, you’ve no doubt heard about the fears of an aging workforce and the challenges that will pose.

In the 2012 movie The Avengers, Samuel Jackson’s character Nick Fury says, “There was an idea … The idea was to bring together a group of remarkable people to see if they could become something more.” This was in reference to assembling a new generation of superheroes to protect the Earth. Likewise, the YPP USA was assembled as the next generation to inherit the duty of care for the pipeline industry.

The YPP’s version of Nick Fury was Patrick Vieth, executive vice president at Dynamic Risk USA, who has more than 25 years of experience in the pipeline industry. YPP chair Molly Laughlin Doran and vice chair Eric Lang were among the founding YPP members, and they share similar stories from the early days of the organization.

“I was there at the very beginning, when we officially launched in 2015,” says Laughlin Doran. “I learned about it from Patrick Vieth. I attended the 2014 International Pipeline Conference and Exposition in Calgary and saw that the Young Pipeliners Association of Canada (YPAC) had a large presence there, and Pat approached me and said, ‘Hey, this would be fun, would you want to be a part of an organization like this in the United States?’”

Laughlin Doran started her career in the pipeline industry in 2013 and was looking for a way to get more involved.

“I was working at a composite repair company at the time, where I spent the first three years of my career, and I was very new to the industry,” she says. “I got involved because I saw it as a good way to get to know people my own age in the industry.”

Now Laughlin Doran has become an entrepreneur as owner and cofounder of Pipe Spring LLC, which is developing a new kind of pipeline integrity enhancement product. Her father, Shawn Laughlin, is president and CEO of the company and a longtime veteran of the pipeline industry. She never thought she would follow in his footsteps.

“I fought it, thinking I didn’t want to go that route,” she says. “I majored in government in college. Coming out of school, I discovered that pipelines was a very lucrative path.”

Lang says there are myriad reasons for wanting to join the YPP.

“Each member of YPP has had their own driver independently for why they joined. Mine was trying to understand all the opportunities that were out there in the industry,” Lang says. “For others, they want to be able to show up at industry conferences and know people, to be able to talk with senior industry colleagues and not have that intimidation factor there, to break through that. A lot of us had things that we wanted to do as a member of the pipeline industry to make a difference, and the YPP is good place to start.”

Lang is an engineer in the risk integrity group for Kinder Morgan. He started in the pipeline industry at Enbridge in 2011. A few years into his career, he too was approached by Vieth about starting a young pipeliners’ association.

“He gathered a group of about 25 of us and a handful of senior professionals to see if something like this could come about,” Lang says. “In two days, we nailed down the basics of what YPP would become, and ever since, we have been building upon that foundation.”

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At that meeting the YPP established its mission statement: “To prepare ourselves to accept the transfer of the duty of care for the pipeline industry.” That guiding principle has served as the basis for everything the group has done.

Vieth was motivated to establish a group for younger professionals in the pipeline industry, in part, because of his own experiences.

“Early in my career, I was provided a lot of great opportunities and felt as if the younger professionals were missing some of these opportunities,” Vieth says. “With the success of young pipeline professional organizations in Australia and Canada, it was time to pull together a group of young professionals and industry advisors to launch Young Pipeline Professionals USA. Now that YPP USA is well established, young professionals that are actively engaged are provided many opportunities that extend beyond their day jobs.”

YPP USA is part of the Young Pipeliners International (YPI) umbrella, Laughlin Doran says. There are several groups around the world, including YPP USA’s two predecessors, YPAC in Canada and the Young Pipeliners Forum (YPF) in Australia.

“We were the third group,” she says. “The YPP got started with what those groups had done.”

One advantage the YPP has is being its own entity, says Laughlin Doran, adding that the group was established as a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization.

“We are our own entity, which gives us a lot of freedom to make decisions and be what we want to be,” she says. “But that said, our mission is similar to other YPI groups, even though we have that freedom.”

Vieth adds that the connection with the international groups has provided additional benefits for YPP members.

“YPP USA members are often provided great opportunities to actively participate and contribute in many industry forums,” Vieth says. “Because of this involvement, their network of industry professionals has been expanded and they better understand the resources available to help support their professional growth. Over the past several years, Young Pipelines International was established to serve as a focal point for similar young pipeline professionals around the world including the United States, Canada, Australia, Brazil and Europe. This international connection provides another opportunity to collaborate and share ideas and experiences.”

The YPP’s non-profit status and governance structure sets the group up for future success, Vieth says, but evolving the group to meet the needs of the pipeline industry is up to its members.

“That said, it will be critical for the pipeline industry, especially pipeline operators, to be fully committed to this organization in order to ensure its long-term success,” Vieth adds. “YPP USA is currently looking at how to best engage companies and young professionals to create the best forum for success. The need for this type of organization is clearly recognized, but there is still additional work required to ensure the engagement and retention of companies and young professionals committed to the cause.”

Young Pipeline Professionals

Growing Leaders

The YPP aims to attract anyone who is new to the pipeline industry, as well as those who may be looking for their first experiences being involved with an industry association.

“We try to be as inclusive as possible,” Lang says, “so anybody and everybody who has involvement in the pipeline industry can be a member, whether it’s someone in an office or in the field. We even have a student membership, for those studying and think that one day they might join the industry.”

Since 2015, Lang says, the YPP has grown from the founding 25 members, five of whom are still with the group, to about 200 members. However, Laughlin Doran adds that the YPP measures membership a bit “strangely,” noting that the group has had more than 400 registered members since the YPP’s inception. That number reflects everyone who has been involved with the group in the last five years, including those who have aged out.

Technically, the age limit to join the YPP is 35, Lang says, but that limit is a bit flexible.

“We guarantee membership for five years from the date you joined,” he says. “If someone joined at 35, they could be a member until they were 39. Having said that, in all my time with the YPP, we have never denied anyone based on age. The point of the group is to get people who are young or new to the industry. Once they have found their way around, the goal is not to keep people throughout their career, but to introduce them to what the industry has to offer and other organizations. Ideally, our members turn into AGA members or PRCI or NACE, where they will make their impact.”

Lang says one of the main reasons he got involved with the YPP and then took on a leadership role was because of the opportunities presented.

“I just kept saying yes to the opportunities that were put in front of me,” Lang says. “When Pat gathered a group of young professionals, I said yes to showing up to the founding meeting. I said yes when there was an opportunity to come on board as one of the workgroup leads, because I saw that as a chance to really get things done. I said yes when a spot came open to be secretary, then vice chair. I just kept inching my way up, saying yes as each opportunity come along.”

For Laughlin Doran, it was about expanding her industry knowledge.

“In the beginning, a big driver for me was that I’m not an engineer by education, and a lot of the pipeline industry is technical,” she says. “For me, it was to get education on technical topics that I needed to know to be a well-rounded pipeline professional. The YPP offers a variety of webinars and training events, and a lot of it is technical, which is great information for all of our members.”

Joining the YPP leadership ranks has been even more rewarding, Laughlin Doran says, especially being able to bridge the gap from the founding members to a new crop of leaders.

“I’ve had many opportunities that I wouldn’t have had otherwise,” she says. “A lot of my fellow YPP leaders have been around awhile, and now we’re starting to pinpoint new leaders who are taking the lead, so it’s nice being able to pass the baton off to this new group of leaders.”

One of those newer YPP leaders is Kaushal Shah, PE, PMP, manager of the global workshare team for North America at Mott MacDonald, based in Massachusetts. Shah joined Mott MacDonald in 2012, after graduating from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. This is Shah’s third year as a YPP member and his first in a leadership role, taking on the Community of Practice workgroup lead.

“I wanted to join a group of people my age that were dedicated to taking care of the industry,” Shah says. “The YPP attracted me because it focused on educating people in the market, growing the next generation of pipeliners and promoting the benefits of the industry.”

Shah is a second-generation pipeliner, having grown up in the Middle East where his parents were involved with the oil and gas industry.

“I saw the benefits of the oil and gas industry and the opportunity for commercial and personal growth,” he says. “When I came to the States in 2008, I knew that’s what I wanted to do when I went to college.”

As the Community of Practice lead, Shah’s responsibility is to make sure the YPP is engaged with its members, which includes organizing the YPP Symposium and other events across the United States, such as webinars, so that members get the full benefit from their membership.

“The YPP has some very ambitious plans,” Shah says. “I can see what the YPP is doing down the line, and I want to be part of that growth story.”

Evolving Endeavors

Over the years, the YPP USA has evolved in the way it engages with its members. The YPP has branched out to host networking events at industry events, webinars, site visits and even hosts a major conference of its own.

“We have definitely taken on bigger endeavors,” Laughlin Doran says. “In the beginning, YPP didn’t have a flagship event. Now, every 18 months, we have our YPP Symposium, which we’ve done twice now. It’s a two-day event, and it covers the entire pipeline lifecycle.”

The YPP Symposium brings in expert speakers, allows YPP members to interact with industry veterans and gives members industry exposure. This year the event also included the YPP’s first white paper competition, the winner of which got to present at the AGA Operations Conference, April 29-May 3.

The first YPP Symposium was Sept. 21-22, 2017, in Houston. This year marked the second, held March 7-8, in The Woodlands, Texas. The YPP has also established two awards, the Young Achievement Award and the Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Industry.

“It’s a great opportunity for our members,” Laughlin Doran says. “Overall, now that the industry has really grasped onto idea of YPP, they’ve accepted us and understand our mission. We’re getting so much support, and that makes our jobs as leaders so much easier. People are offering to volunteer and to provide financial support. They know what we’re trying to do, and they see the impact and that it’s worth investing in.”

In addition to evolving in its offerings as an organization, the YPP has also evolved in its membership demographics.

“It’s kind of exciting now,” Lang says. “The goal has always been to be nationwide, but we obviously had to start locally. While things started in Houston, and our members are still primarily in the Houston area, but we now have gotten to the point where a good number of our leadership team is based in other cities around the country.”

Shah represents that expanding membership footprint, as well as a different point of view.

“I bring a different perspective to the YPP,” Shah says. “I grew up abroad in a primarily oil and gas driven economy. I saw the efforts taken to promote the industry over there. I also work in the Northeast, so I bring that perspective as well.”

Shah joined the YPP after attending the first YPP Symposium and has seen how the group has changed.

“When I first joined the YPP, it was a smaller group, but I was really impressed by the first Symposium,” Shah says. “There’s a hands-on benefit of being part of an organization like this. If we continue with this, we’ll be able to attract more talent from other industries. I see YPP as being well-positioned to support that.”

Future Solutions

YPP members face a number of challenges as they establish their careers in the pipeline industry.

“The first thing is that people in the YPP and in our age demographic are getting more and more responsibility at an earlier age, as the older generation is retiring,” Laughlin Doran says. “While we’re seeing more advancement, that also means we’re less experienced in a number of areas. With the silver tsunami that we always hear about, some organizations are great at addressing that challenge, while others need an organization like the YPP to supplement that knowledge.”

As an organization, Laughlin adds that YPP faces the challenge of its members having free time.

“Financial support is great, but for YPP members time off work is a bigger barrier for participation than any kind of financial barrier,” she says. “We do the best we can to schedule events so no one has to miss work time, but it’s inevitable. Time off can be hard to come by to invest in the YPP.”

Educating company executives and managers about the benefits of YPP is one way to overcome that challenge, Laughlin Doran adds. Having the opportunity to attend a YPP event allows members to broaden their knowledge so that they’ll be ready for that added responsibility when their older counterparts retire.
Education is also an important aspect of the YPP’s mission, Shah says, referring to the need for more public outreach by the pipeline industry.

“Public perception is poor in today’s marketplace,” Shah says. “Pipelines are a really safe mode of transportation. The stats aren’t published and highlighted enough. We’re a fairly closed industry. We need to open up and show how safe pipelines are and how the industry actually works. That starts at the grassroots level.”

By encouraging and attracting younger people to join the industry, Shah says, the YPP can tackle two problems at once, changing public perception and developing the next generation of talent.

“By the time people get to college, their opinions are already formed for the most part,” he says. “That’s a major challenge. We need to keep talking about our industry and encourage younger people to come into a market that wants their work. This is one of the most complex industries. The science is so complex, compared to other industries, and we really need that talent.”

Lang says that new leaders will also play a role in the YPP’s plans for the future. Elections are set for July to elect the new leadership team, who will serve two-year terms, as well as the workgroup leads, who will serve for one year.

The biggest test for the new leaders is to continue providing relevant events and training for YPP members, Laughlin Doran says. While the current leadership team will remain with the YPP, she adds that it’s a sign of success for the YPP that there is a new crop of leaders ready to take the reins and bring fresh ideas to the table.

The YPP mission statement is crucial to the group’s success, Shah says.

“The YPP has a clear mission statement, and we need to stick to that,” Shah says. “It’s important to transfer that knowledge to the next the generation and make sure we’re taking the duty of care for the pipelines in the ground. The YPP could be a strong force nationwide to promote the industry.”

Bradley Kramer is managing editor of North American Oil & Gas Pipelines. Contact him at bkramer@benjaminmedia.com.

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