the oil and gas sector needs anything from 10,000 to 125,000 additional people in the next five years

Larraine Boorman is managing director of the oil and gas skills body OPITO.

Previously, she was chief executive of Fern Training and Development, one of the UK’s largest private-sector-led training organisations. As managing director of Sencia Group, Boorman led a private-equity-backed management buyout and doubled the size of the organisation prior to merger.

Julian Turner: Could you give a brief overview of OPITO and its role within the offshore industry?

Larraine Boorman: OPITO is the skills body for the oil and gas sector, and is focused on making sure that the industry is supplied with a competent and safe workforce, now and in the future. Our business model is unique in that we’re owned by the industry and exist solely to serve the needs of employers and trade unions worldwide.

JT: How does OPITO serve the full gamut of oil and gas industry stakeholders?

LB: There are four strands to our strategy. Firstly, we look to exert influence at every stage of the skills pipeline, starting with education at primary and secondary level.

"The national skills survey and strategy is about making a radical step change by delivering one definitive set of market intelligence."

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects are absolutely critical to our industry, so it’s really important for us to encourage their uptake and contextualise the school curriculum.

Secondly, we work hard to attract people into the oil and gas sector by putting the message out that this is not a sunset industry – it is one of the very few industries where you can have a career for life. We know there’s at least another 40 years of oil extraction in the North Sea and the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS). Assuming that technology and knowledge improves, we could extract much more.

Thirdly, OPITO looks to influence industry strategy and the wider political agenda, and keep its many stakeholders – everyone from colleges and training providers to industry operators – informed.

Last, but not least, is workforce development. This involves working collaboratively with industry organisations to address competence issues that the industry deems to be of priority importance.

JT: Why has it taken until now to execute a collaborative national skills survey and strategy?

LB: It’s not that we haven’t done anything about the problem – the gravitas has been increasing – the problem is that information about the skills landscape has become fragmented.

"The range of published figures state the oil and gas sector needs anything from 10,000 to 125,000 additional people in the next five years."

So many organisations ask for information that the industry tells us it has survey fatigue. The range of published figures state that the oil and gas sector needs anything from 10,000 to 125,000 additional people in the next five years, but does the industry really take these numbers seriously? The answer is no. Collectively, we don’t know what information to believe.

The national skills survey and strategy is about making a radical step change by delivering one definitive set of market intelligence that we all believe in, because we’ve all bought into it.

As an industry we know what licences and projects have been authorised for the next ten years and what that means in terms of resources and skills. Put this together with the survey information and that will reflect – as best we can – the future needs of our industry and the predicted skills shortfall.

Take that a step further. When we talk to governments, we can categorically tell them what the investment priorities should be in the next ten years based on this intelligence, while in terms of education, we will know which skills we require.

The number of times colleges say to me, "if only we really knew what the industry needed then we would commit to investment in the right training". If we can tell them to base their financial strategy over the next three years on what this skills information is telling them – and organise their training provision around those priorities – then they will have more confidence to invest.

JT: Oil and Gas UK CEO Malcolm Webb recently stated that recruiting new graduate talent into the industry isn’t a problem in the UK. Is this true, and if so, is a new national skills strategy necessary?

LB: We know that some areas of the industry are extremely attractive to graduates, but we are unsure if this can be said across the entire industry. Until we get definitive information that we all believe in, we will continue to have these conversations.

To ensure that we have the right pipeline of future talent, we need to make sure skills issues are looked at across the board.

Only then can we say, categorically, that graduate recruitment, for example, is not a problem in certain areas, but that we need to raise awareness about exciting careers available elsewhere in the supply chain.

It comes back to how important it is to buy into the national oil and gas skills survey, so we can use that as a foundation to base our future solutions on.

JT: Which stakeholders will take part in the survey and how will the information be correlated?

LB: The survey will consist of industry intelligence – due to be published in January 2014 – and OPITO will use this as both a catalyst and a management tool to build and inform a national skills strategy and action plan.

We are also engaged in a number of stakeholder forums. Using that market intelligence, we will work collaboratively with oil and gas industry partners and stakeholders to develop and shape future education, careers and workforce development policies.

The strategy is constantly evolving. Rather than just completing a survey every year, we may release frequent intelligence bulletins that will inform collective industry strategies.

JT: What specific skills are in short supply in the UK oil and gas industry?

LB: The immediate need is for skilled technicians, engineers and project managers to deliver key projects right now, so the short-term is about finding transferable skills – we’re told that’s the biggest human resource issue currently facing the industry.

We’ve created a fast-track transition programme aimed at up-skilling experienced workers from potentially declining industries, such as automotive engineering, as well as from the armed forces. An estimated 20,000 people will leave the military every year for the next five years and perhaps a third of those skills will be appropriate for the oil and gas sector – that’s a fantastic talent pipeline.

OPITO’s job to provide a structured mechanism that allows us to replenish the workforce with core skills from these other industry sectors and ensure they are not lost to the economy.

JT: What are the reasons for this talent shortfall?

LB: I think it’s safe to say that lessons have been learnt. In the early days people didn’t have the same confidence in the long-term future of the industry. This short-termism perhaps meant there wasn’t the same level of investment in long-term skills, training and development.

However, an increase in knowledge and technology has allowed us to gain a better understanding of the lifespan and now we want to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.

"Losing key talent is a real problem and we have to replace it, but until now we haven’t had the skills pipeline to allow us to do that."

We also have an ageing workforce and many industry pioneers are either retiring or approaching retirement age.

Losing that key talent is a real problem and we have to replace it, but until now we haven’t had the skills pipeline to allow us to do that.

Shipbuilding, manufacturing – these industries have all but disappeared. This resource depletion means there are fewer places in which to find the right people.

Finally, the industry has grown phenomenally and the scale of that growth, both in the UK and globally, means that talent now spreads worldwide. Many skilled people who worked on the UKCS over the last 15 years now work globally, so the resource has been spread across a wider landscape and the additional entrants needed to compensate for this have not been coming in.

All these reasons combine to make a massive need and we have to look at the problem with a much wider perspective than simply seeing it as companies competing for talent.

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