Threat to mature North Sea

One UK-based personnel manager recently advised major operators to look closely at the quality of the bait being offered in response to the shortage of skilled technicians within the industry.

One UK-based personnel manager recently advised major operators to look closely at the quality of the bait being offered in response to the shortage of skilled technicians within the industry. "It's going to be a case of many people fishing in the same small pool. Only those offering the most attractive package will land the big fish," he warned.

A US service company executive viewed the recruitment problem in a slightly different light. Everyone, he said, was trying to pull apples from the same tree.

Whatever the applied analogy, it is a fact that skills shortages are not peculiar to a particular oil province. For that matter, they are not unique to the oil and gas industry, particularly in the UK where there is fierce competition to procure qualified technicians and engineers from diminishing human resources.

The immediate reaction is that the shortfall, allied to the industry's well documented problems of having an aging offshore work force and a poor image, represents a major threat to the future of a mature North Sea, undermining employment levels, projected in the PILOT Targets For 2010 document.

In my book, that perceived threat should be seen more as a challenge. Skills shortages have a telling impact on virtually all business areas - from the onshore service and supply chain to offshore production - and the problem must be addressed through the collaborative and unified approach that has become the hallmark of initiatives already put in place in order to secure the long-term future of the UK continental shelf.

Contrary to what some observers may think, the industry has not been sitting on its hands. Much has taken place since the UK Offshore Operators Association (UKOOA)-funded Skills Foresight Report, which produced the Offshore Industry Training Organisation (OPITO), and was subsequently taken up by National Training Organisations (NTO) group within PILOT, all in early 2000. The UKOOA report sounded a clear warning of the skills shortages facing the industry and was in many respects the catalyst of the pan-industry discussions and cooperation that have already driven forward a number of training and educational initiatives. I speak for all members of the NTO group when I say that this report will be constantly revisited and updated in our efforts to implement further measures as they are required.

So what has been achieved? What steps will be taken to ensure that the UK industry is addressing the issue of skills shortages, not only today and tomorrow, but on a long-term basis?

In terms of investment, UKOOA and PILOT recently unveiled plans to contribute an additional £1.5 million over the next three years, which will allow the Engineering and Construction Industries Board (ECITB) to provide additional places for production technician apprentices.

Educationally, UKOOA has piloted what I regard as exciting and challenging projects in primary and secondary schools and is actively developing student technical skills and understanding that underpin engineering and scientific subjects at universities.

It is not by accident that one conference session at Offshore Europe 2001 was devoted to "Winning the Talent War." It is imperative that we do not lose sight of the need to address skills shortages through the open debate that has become a hallmark of the way we now do business in the UK oil and gas industry.

While these initiatives have merits in their own right, it is equally important that the industry continues to deliver the basic message, to young people in particular, that the quest for UK oil and gas does offer long-term career opportunities that are both challenging and rewarding.

Government and industry leaders can write a script to that effect. It falls to everyone in the industry to counteract the image of a mature province on its last legs by highlighting the fact that we have yet to produce more than half of the estimated recoverable reserves in the North Sea.

As we have found, that is not an easy task in an era when the city environment and information technology (IT) appear to offer better career prospects. But I remain convinced that given the right information and encouragement, the graduates of tomorrow can be persuaded to take a different view.

Individual companies operating within the sector have a particular role to play in this direction. They can go some distance in solving current problems by remaining fully alert to the recruitment opportunities offered by what has become an increasingly mobile UK work force.

As to the immediate future, the NTO group is committed to working closely with a range of trade and training organizations to address areas of identified skills shortage. While funding has already been generated to address the need to provide 80 offshore technician apprenticeships, we are acutely aware that there is also an urgent need to respond to the vacancies that exist for qualified personnel in well services, drilling, maintenance, and reservoir engineering.

We should never lose sight of the fact that the industry needs to recruit and train approximately 150 new technicians each year to replace those leaving the sector, either through retirement or the option of taking jobs elsewhere.

This willingness to offer help where it is most needed must become a cornerstone of the industry's current efforts to develop a long-term strategic approach to the problem. The very fact that the industry is looking some 15 years ahead is in itself an answer to those who have expressed a reluctance to commit to an exciting and ultimately rewarding career in what remains a vibrant North Sea oil and gas province.

Mike Salter
Abbot Group

This page reflects viewpoints on the political, economic, cultural, technological, and environmental issues that shape the future of the petroleum industry.Offshore Magazine invites you to share your thoughts. Send your manuscript to Beyond the Horizon, Offshore Magazine, Box 1941, Houston, TX 77251 USA. Manuscripts will not be returned.

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