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Bridging the gap

In Paul Thomas Anderson’s feted 2007 film “There Will Be Blood,” pathologically ambitious Daniel Plainview, played by Daniel Day- Lewis, turns from gold to black gold during the great South Californian oil boom that straddled the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. Based on the spirit more than the text of Upton Sinclair’s 1927 novel Oil!, it showed how a man could be possessed by the potent, magical allure of oil.

Oil booms such as the one featured in the film come and go due to political and economic reasons, but the singular importance of oil still remains. It dictates government policy, in the large, but also provides the fuel that runs our cars and heats our offices. Despite the move towards renewable power sources in the past generation, oil and gas remain vital, and we are currently in the midst of another resurgence in this sector. New sources and techniques are being found and developed, and greener technologies are being refined, all of which serve to make oil an attractive business.

Oil Platform

Offshore: Facing a skills shortage

This in turn breeds a need for skilled people to get involved, to increase workforce numbers across all areas. In a recession, with high unemployment, this wealth of opportunities should be a godsend, and something to be celebrated. However, this way a problem lies.

The issue is one that can be seen in other markets too - the skills gap. This is a developing problem for those in the energy sector as companies try to staff teams to take advantage of new opportunities.

“Solving challenges is why we became engineers in the first place and the energy challenge is one of the biggest yet”

Joanna Moffatt, Atkins

A report from industry body Oil and Gas UK, titled 2012 UKCS Workforce Demographics Report, supports these contentions, stating that 81% of companies expect to grow in the coming years but are worried about attracting the right calibre of professionals to meet this demand. The report also points out the areas that they are struggling most to find people in. “All employers consider engineering and managerial roles to be the most difficult to fill, with operators also finding it difficult to recruit professional scientists,” it says. Offshore operators are foreseeing an increased difficulty in employing the right operational and production staff too.

As expected, the big companies are not standing still, and are working to close this gap before it becomes a chasm. Consultant Atkins is one of the foremost in this area, in both identifying the problem and taking measures to rectify it.

“Aside from historical and economic circumstances, engineering has experienced a general ‘drain’ as potential engineering graduates have been attracted into banking, finance and IT,” says Atkins operations manager for oil and gas, Europe Joanna Moffatt.

She also sees the same gaps as those identified elsewhere. “Circumstances have led to what is sometimes termed the ‘missing years’ within oil companies and consultancies alike where there are few engineers between the ages of 35 and 45,” Moffatt explains.

“This age group is where you would normally find your senior technical experts who are ready to lead big projects and large teams.”

Offshore Oil Platform

Oil&gas: Dearth of experienced engineers

One solution that Atkins and other companies have pursued is to transfer experienced professionals from similar industries that have the correct knowledge of engineering principles and safety into the teams that need them. Moffatt is as good a person to comment on this as anyone, being as she has done exactly this herself.

“I transferred from a position as a senior bridge engineer to Atkins’ energy business in November 2010,” she explains. “I was initially engineering manager for the oil and gas fixed structures design team working on the design of new greenfield North Sea platforms, both for oil and gas and offshore wind, as well as repairs and modifications to existing platforms.

“Circumstances have led to what is sometimes termed the ‘missing years’ within oil companies and consultancies”

Joanna Moffatt, Atkins

“I am now operations manager for a large multidisciplinary team in Atkins’ oil and gas Europe division working on projects worldwide for global operators such as Shell, Talisman and BP. My transfer has meant I am now on more of a business management career stream and I am enjoying the new challenges that brings,” she adds.

It could seem a little selfdefeating to continually cannibalise your own teams without looking outside too, and Atkins feels there are a number of other sectors whose skills could transfer to oil and gas. Salaries are good and the sector is buoyant, so what strategies should oil and gas companies and consultants be taking to attract this talent? Moffatt sets out four points she feels should be taken under advisement:

  • Recruitment efforts should continue to be directed at the 30s and 40s age group in order to avoid a potential shortage of supervisory personnel in the near future.
  • Be flexible in the criteria you require of candidates both during recruitment and mobilisation of projects.
  • Commit to providing the right training. For example, Atkins has a training academy that gives people the domain knowledge they need in a short space of time. It also supports the MSc in oil and gas structural engineering at the University of Aberdeen by providing industry experts with hands-on experience to write and deliver modules and supporting engineers from within the business to study this course on a part time, remote learning basis.
  • Companies also need to provide a supportive environment where knowledge sharing and mentoring is facilitated and encouraged - where junior engineers can learn from senior technical experts and vice versa.

Two things are clear, and they might seem contradictory in some senses. One is that the oil and gas sector is a lucrative, exciting and prosperous sector; the second is that it has problems closing a yawning recruitment gap.

Moffatt is optimistic that this problem can be solved, and offers words of encouragement and advice to those thinking of getting involved in the industry: “Go for it. Definitely think of your wider skill set when looking at the job specifications. Read between the lines of the job specification - different sectors word things differently but the required skill set may be the same.

“Solving challenges is why we became engineers in the first place and the energy challenge is one of the biggest yet,” she concludes.

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