Cambridge students march through the university demanding that it divests from its oil and fossil fuel investments. Photo by Robert Evans / Alamy Stock Photo
You are about to leave university and are looking for work. A company promises you an interesting job with good pay and benefits. There’s only one catch – the job is to help the company destroy your future.For more and more students, the prospect of working for a fossil fuel company after graduation invokes feelings of embarrassment, shame and disgust.Over the last few years, student campaigners have pushed 76 UK universities to remove their investment funds from fossil fuel companies. For the big polluters, this is only the beginning of the nightmare. With anger growing at their past, present and planned crimes, oil and gas companies are finding it difficult to recruit graduates.
A new wave of protest is engulfing polluters that try to recruit on UK campuses, a trend that is likely to spread worldwide as climate change continues to politicise millions of young people.In late 2019, students from the University of Oxford, one of the world’s oldest universities, blockaded a local hotel when fossil fuel giant Glencore tried to hold a graduate recruitment event. The same day, Sheffield University students forced BP and ExxonMobil to flee a careers fair after a noisy sit-in. Cambridge University students have protested at least four careers events held by fossil fuel companies over the last six months, leading to events being poorly attended, or cancelled and moved online instead to avoid protests.
“It's clear from recent actions that students are increasingly unhappy with their universities being used as a recruiting ground for the companies profiting from climate breakdown,” says Chris Saltmarsh, a co-director of People & Planet, an organisation that trains 2,000 students a year to take action on social and environmental justice issues. The group also previously published a guide for students on how to disrupt arms and fossil fuel companies at careers fairs.The fact that fossil fuel companies have spent decades delaying climate action and that their future plans involve digging up more oil and gas than the planet can handle, means that there is a growing sense of stigma attached to working for them. “Students looking at working for these companies mostly know that they are immoral companies now,” says Sam Carter, a History student at Cambridge and member of Cambridge Zero Carbon Society, who have organised protests against fossil fuel companies at careers events. “There is a sense of shame.”
This shaming really matters. Bloomberg data shows that big oil already has a “millennial problem”. Graduate recruitment has slowed to the lowest since records began in 2012. Without this talent pipeline, how can they keep extracting as baby boomers retire? Bloomberg spoke to oil and gas industry recruiters who have said that skills gaps in the industry are already damaging productivity. Lucy Williams, a manager in an oil exploration company, told Bloomberg, “University petroleum courses are being asked to take petroleum out of their name, because people think petroleum is the devil.”Even more worryingly for fossil fuel companies, a 2017 study by global consulting giant Accenture said that it believed that the inability of oil and gas companies to recruit new talent would be a bigger problem for them than getting access to money, equipment or new oil supplies.There’s no sign of this trend stopping, for lots of reasons. For one thing, the tactic is clearly something that energises students. When the Oxford University Climate Justice Campaign found out about the Glencore careers event with less than 24 hours notice, they managed to get enough protesters out on a cold October night to block several entrances to the hotel. Despite Glencore calling the police, there was little they could do to stop the protest.Fossil fuel companies have no real way to stop this happening, and are clearly rattled by it. When a huge “climate crime scene” banner was held in front of the Shell stall at an Oxford careers fair, the only thing the Shell employees could do was to step in front of it and continue trying to recruit students with this huge, insulting banner as a backdrop. The bemused staff at the Schlumberger stall (a large oil and gas services company) at the same event were seen to frantically text their bosses to ask what they should do in response to the protests. Sam Carter recalls: “We were being really polite to them, but they were saying to their bosses they didn’t know how to operate in these conditions.”
Faced with this campus resistance, the response from the fossil fuel companies has often been to retreat. Sheffield University student Hannah Mottram, who is researching a PhD in energy, took part in a careers fair protest against ExxonMobil and BP, and posted a photo on Twitter of their empty stalls after they fled.In earlier decades, oil majors would have regarded students like Mottram as key recruitment targets. Now she helps chase them out of careers fairs. In Oxford and Cambridge, students say that BP and Shell have either turned planned events targeted with potential protests into “webinars”, or cancelled them altogether at short notice citing “unforeseen circumstances”.Every time the fossil giants are chased off campus, the feeling that they are not welcome there grows. So too do the furtive eye-rolls when someone takes a graduate placement with a fossil fuel company.Protests at careers events will only grow and grow. There is nothing unique about these three campuses that would mean that the protests would be limited to there. Tens of thousands of school climate strikers, angry and disgusted at what these companies are doing, will be arriving on university campuses across the world over the next few years.@AdamMcGibbonAdam McGibbon is a climate campaigner and writer