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Tackling the Offshore Skills Shortage

18 October 2007




Jeff Durham investigates the skills shortfall in today's offshore industry.


The oil and gas industry is enjoying unparalleled and continuing success, with oil and gas prices well on their way up and demand, driven largely by the new economies of India and China, rising at an equal pace. In fact, for more than 40 years the oil and gas offshore industry has seen continuing success, especially in the North Sea.

So you would ultimately expect there would be more demand to join such an industry – but look around at offshore fields in every international location and you will find the opposite. Along with concerns about supply, there are major fears surrounding skills shortages and training.

"An aging workforce threatens to halt the offshore industry's growth."

Some argue the industry is no longer 'attractive' enough to young people – long hours away from home, roles with complicated titles and an image that is far flung from the popular careers of today in the arts, IT and other spheres.

Others argue it is the training that is causing the offshore industry's current skills situation, with new developments happening much faster than training can accommodate.

A GLOBAL PROBLEM

Whatever the cause, the current situation has not been tackled with success by any company, in any area of the globe to date. Hugh Williams, the chief executive of the International Marine Contractors Association (IMCA) which represents some 410 offshore marine and underwater engineering companies, says he believes the skills shortage should be attacked from all angles of industry, on a global scale.

"The current skills shortage is a worldwide phenomenon," Williams says, adding that the current crossover of engineering and IT skills, and technicians has seen extra pressure placed on the industry, especially in Europe, where large civil engineering infrastructure roles onshore have bled the skills base out at sea.

"European countries offer alternative successful careers in service industries (such as finance) and absorb many engineers and technicians into other parts of the industry, like civil engineering infrastructure and major buildings like hospitals plus the up-coming Olympics," Williams says.

AN AGING WORKFORCE

Another problem that threatens to halt the industry's growth is one faced in numerous other industries worldwide – an aging workforce. At present, according to Williams, western nations such as the UK are probably slightly worse off than other nations.

Jessica Burton, HSSE business analyst at Oil & Gas UK says a number of initiatives have been working in recent years to create a shift in this market, and a new optimism that the problem is not as dire as was first thought.

"Along with concerns about supply, there are major fears surrounding skills shortages and training in the offshore industry."

"The influx of young workers into the UK oil and gas industry over recent years demonstrates the success of various industry initiatives, for example the 'upstream technician training scheme', and numerous company graduate recruitment schemes," Burton says.

For instance, the offshore industry said for years it could not attract young women into the field. But the findings of Oil & Gas UK's 2006 UKCS Workforce Demographics Report show that the average age of a female offshore worker is just 34 years (mostly in technological roles).

"We need to continue efforts to target skilled young women and demonstrate to the wider public that the oil and gas industry provides attractive and rewarding careers to both male and female workers," Burton says.

"It is also essential that, at the same time, cross-industry efforts ensure enough mature workers with suitable experience are brought in, possibly from other sectors via skills conversion programmes, to guarantee a balanced and appropriately skilled workforce."

However, it is not all doom and gloom. Oil & Gas UK recently produced a report on the age structure of different sectors of the workforce and have discovered that, contrary to popular belief, the average age of the offshore worker is, in fact, 41 which is the expected average age for any workforce between the ages of 20 and 60.

CROSS SKILLS

Facilities solutions provider Petrofac is now at the coalface of the current skills crisis, having worked alongside major oil and gas corporations to train staff for the ongoing changes in offshore industry. It says while more people may be entering the workforce than before, the issue of meeting set skills requirements remains.

Paddy Mallan, the VP of maintenance and operations support at Petrofac facilities management says his company has found that the best way to harness people's talents and meet gaps in the skills crisis is to promote cross skills.

"Some argue the offshore industry is no longer 'attractive' enough to young people."

"Cross skilling provides a long-term solution to the skills shortage," Mallan says.

Petrofac has been enticing recruits who already hold an apprenticeship in other fields to develop their career with ongoing training and the transfer of skills and trades. "Petrofac has sourced workers from the marine industry, developed a skilled entrants' programme and initiated, through our international training centres, nationalisation programmes in the countries where we do business," Mallan says.

Through its Petrofac facilities management and Petrofac training divisions, the group has engaged in several successful agreements with organisations from different industries whose mutual aim is to be able to meet the demand for new recruits.

THE SKILLED ENTRANTS CONVERSION PROGRAMME

Supported by the TTE Technical Training Group in Teeside, a six-week intensive training course has been developed by Petrofac called 'The Skilled Entrants Conversion Programme' which is aimed at filling the production technician and instrumentation technician vacancies in the North Sea.

These intensive courses bring the technicians' work skills up to the required competency levels quickly so that they can be posted offshore in technician designate roles as soon as they complete the course.

It's estimated that, depending on an individual's ability, instrument technicians should be able to take on full technician roles after six months and that production technicians should be fully qualified within a year. Petrofac also intends to introduce similar courses for electrical and mechanical technicians as well as increasing the number of people who undertake its production and instrumentation courses.

In addition to these courses, Petrofac has set up a groundbreaking initiative with Babcock Engineering Services at Rosyth in Fife which could see some workers being taught how to adapt their skills such as pipe fitting, welding, rigging and other engineering and technical skills for use offshore.

SETTING THE STANDARD

Ken Munro, head of personnel at Babcock Engineering Services says he believes arrangements like this should set a standard for the engineering industry.

"Cross skilling can provide a long-term solution to the skills shortage."

"The ability to share resources across traditionally protected boundaries during peaks and troughs in workload will help us to maintain the overall engineering skillbase which has been diminishing for far too long," Munro says.

"Our first choice will always be to resource share within the ship fabrication and repair industry and, because of an increasing workload, we haven't yet utilised our agreement but it is now in place and could serve our industries well in the future."

But demand, an aging workforce and a lack of new recruits are all pressing issues for the industry today. And how well we resolve these issues in coming years could, very well, determine just how productive the offshore industry is for the generations of tomorrow.