Train and retain

30 November 2009

For years the engineering industry has been dogged by an ever-growing skill shortage, which is causing frustration and setbacks in the UK’s oil and gas industry. Anna Mitchell explores the impact this is having on UK companies and what is being done to combat the problem.

Is the sun setting on the UK’s oil and gas industry?
Is the sun setting on the UK’s oil and gas industry?

“The skills issue more than any other will dictate the lifespan of the North Sea oil and gas industry,” says David Doig, chief executive of OPITO – The Oil & Gas Academy. It’s a comment that starkly contrasts with the fossil fuel depletion message we are constantly fed by the media, governments and industry.

Doig’s comment underlines the severity of the issue and demonstrates the importance of OPITO’s work. The Academy is an industry funded, employer and trade union-led organisation. It was launched in December 2007 and is committed to developing and sustaining a skilled and effective workforce.

“With the equivalent of just over 36 billion barrels of oil produced to date and the potential of at least 25 billion still to come, with good management the North Sea is expected to continue producing for another 30 to 40 years,” continues Doig. “This is creating a long-term need to secure highly skilled and competent engineers and technicians,” he added.

OPITO works closely with industry employers to meet this need and collaborates with them on learning and training. Colin Findlay, executive director of Severn Unival, a valve specialist, supports OPITO’s activities and says the skills issue represents a constant struggle for his company.

“We’ve tried really hard over quite a long period of time in this business and we bring through our own apprenticeships every year,” he explained. “We’ve also got an engineering management training programme where we bring graduates up through the business. But this has its limitations and we have to go out to the market to find people. That’s a struggle and we’re also constantly challenged by people trying to steal guys from us and I suppose vice versa because there’s a limitation on the number of skilled people in the industry.”

It’s key for any business to retain the skills to operate effectively and Findlay says this results in an increase in the company’s wage bill. “We try to pay market rates or better and that’s proving more and more difficult,” he says. Despite recession he maintains the skills he requires are still in high demand and good engineers are increasingly expensive. “We’ve got pressure from both sides,” he explains. “The oil price went down last year so the oil companies were pushing us to hold prices down but at the same time we need the skills so we’re having to pay very strong rates to get the people.

“So really the answer for us, on a manufacturing level is to bring people through from the beginning.” Severn Unival has worked hard on developing apprentice schemes for the industry which Findlay claims boast a good retention rate.

In addition to the efforts of manufacturers, Doig has a message for plant managers and established engineers. “They must commit to playing their part in the development of emerging skills sets as the business drivers change and technology innovations become embedded within the plant. The Academy cannot design worldclass, standards and workforce development frameworks without this rich vein of knowledge flowing from the specialists in the workplace.

“The work that OPITO and companies like Severn Unival are carrying out is essential and the alternative to not nurturing new talent isn’t worth thinking about. “I’m concerned that slowly and surely we’re loosing the ability to have the same engineering history that this country has always had.”

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