Fraser Heggie, chief technical officer for global hazardous area services provider, Eutex, discusses the impact the loss of an aging workforce has on the skills bank.
To say that the past years have been testing ones for the energy industry is an understatement. A prolonged period of downturn which saw oil prices tumble had a severe impact right across the oil and gas sector. Just as we all thought we’d turned the corner, and things were on the up again, the pandemic hit.
Two years later, as we emerge from that, we see a mini resurgence in business thanks to the current price of a barrel of oil and the renewables sector taking off on a rapid upward trajectory.
While that’s good news for business, it does leave many sectors of the industry with an almighty challenge, and that’s the shrinking pool of competent, skilled staff who have the experience to take this boom in business forward, in the North Sea and across the world.
There are a number of reasons for this, many of them related to an aging workforce, who have decided to make an early exit from the oil and gas sector after years of uncertainty surrounding the instability of the price of oil and the impact of covid. And, as the price per barrel fell, so too did wages and although oil prices have risen, wage levels have remained lower than before. That means there’s little incentive for this aging but highly skilled workforce to return to work for less than money than they were getting before.
Mind the skills gap
Coming in to fill that skills gap is the next generation of exciting young talent eager to join the energy job market, but youth and enthusiasm are no substitute for experience, expertise and an instinct which has been honed over the years in a high-risk environment where there is no room for error.
The traditional oil and gas sector faces the additional challenge that it is no longer seen as appealing or as lucrative as it used to be for new entrants to the industry compared to what is seen to be the longer-term – and cleaner – career potential of an energy future in renewables.
Skills shortages exist particularly in technical roles, for us that translates into a shortage of electrical technicians who have experience of working in hazardous areas, where a sound knowledge of the environment they work in is crucial. Those shortages exist both in the oil and gas sector where our core business lies, and in the emerging hydrogen sector which has the same commonalities when it comes to working with electrical equipment in potentially explosive environments. Still a relatively new field of renewable hydrogen will present an enormous global skills shortage across all levels of safe production, storage, distribution and use.
The right training
The shortages have to some extent changed the dynamics of the relationship between operators and the supply chain. Many operators no longer have the in-house capability to do this type of work or the resources to train their staff and are increasingly reliant on outsourcing to companies such as Eutex.
To support our own service requirements and those of clients, we run specialist training programmes with high standards where only the best and most competent candidates will gain accreditation. Much of our recruitment comes through these programmes.
The right training provides an invaluable foundation, but practical experience has to be gained and we need to look at short to medium term solutions until these young technicians gain more experience.
The apprenticeship model whereby those starting out on their career are mentored by those coming to the end of their career was the ideal solution – however with some deciding to call an early halt to their career we now see those starting out on their career being mentored by someone who’s one-step in front of them – it’s not ideal but at least it’s a starting point.
Automation versus experienced personnel
The loss of knowledge we are seeing offshore is not unlike the loss of skilled tradesmen working in other sectors, where an experienced workforce is often being replaced by automation.
But automation isn’t a feasible option for the type of work we do, a machine can’t walk up and down steps, pull cable into place and wire it up properly, so it can’t be a fallback or substitute for skilled, experienced personnel.
So, we have to look at other options such as how we can adapt some of products we use, such as cables, types of cable glands and junction boxes to make installation easier and more straight forward.
The Covid-imposed restrictions on travel had a noted impact on the skills gap. As a globally positioned company, Eutex like many others, has had to change its way of working in response to this. Pre-pandemic, we would have sent experienced personnel from the North Sea to coach and mentor new in-country technicians. Over the past couple of years, that’s not been possible, so we’ve adapted and changed, providing on-line mentoring support and coaching where face to face is no longer possible.
Advances in technology have brought huge benefits right across the energy industry, particularly in recent years, but to some extent, that comes with a price and that’s how we ensure that the training that’s being provided today keeps up with the technology that’s developed tomorrow.
Many professions have a requirement for Continuing Professional Development (CPD) to ensure people can upskill and remain up to date with changes in their profession.
That doesn’t really exist to a great extent across the trades. But it we want to take a new approach to address the challenges of the future, perhaps it should. The introduction of a CPD initiative would ensure that technicians remain up to date with new regulations, new competencies, new technology.
Being ready for the future needs a new approach and adapting to ever changing requirements demands an agility and willingness to continue to look at how we can do things better or differently. The loss of a generation of skills will be keenly felt across the industry. Our challenge is to bring on the next generation while ensuring that safety is always the number one priority and at the forefront of all we do.