Despite the global oil and gas industry enjoying levels of prosperity that have been previously unknown, and prospects for further growth, expansion, and large projects looming on the horizon, there remains one serious concern among everyone involved in the sector. Over the last decade – and certainly more so in the last two to five years – the major challenge facing the oil and gas sector has been the serious shortage of skilled personnel, in particular engineering staff, and the associated problems of recruiting sufficiently trained and experienced employees in order to protect the future prospects of the energy market.
However, in an industry that is thriving, and that on face value offers exciting, challenging career prospects for future applicants, the question remains – why is the oil and gas sector so short of its most important commodity of all – people?
One of the key arguments for the problem is that the industry – and the traditional careers associated with it, such as engineering, construction, and IT – are no longer seen as an attractive career option. Not only are the jobs themselves less appealing but also, combined with the long hours away from home, the often-encountered harsh environments, and the complicated roles, the prospect of working in the sector is not necessarily the first choice option of new graduates. Furthermore, it is argued that the very pace of development within the industry, which is increasing the demand for skilled personnel daily across the globe, is so fast that the necessary training and career introduction can no longer keep up with the pace of industry expansion.
In such a climate, it is vital that the problem is addressed sooner rather than later, and thankfully, this is happening. Not only are speciality engineering consultancy firms aiming to source and provide more engineers and skilled technicians than ever before, but also companies and organisations such as the Engineering Technology Board and the Energy Utilities Skills Council are organising forums and conferences to discuss the steps needed, and the action to be taken.
Diane Burkin is engineering liaison manager with the newly set up Engineering Academy at E.ON, one of the UK’s leading power and gas companies. In her role, Diane is tasked with raising the profile of engineering – particularly in the energy sector – as a viable and fulfilling career on a wider scale.
Prior to working at E.ON, Diane worked in recruitment and human resource across a number of sectors, and as such, is well aware of the difficult challenge facing the industry: “Firstly, and most importantly, it is vital to understand that this is not just a UK problem but, rather, there is a considerable lack of skilled engineers on a global basis. Furthermore, a rapidly expanding industry in the Far East and other areas of the world, means that the demand for skilled engineers is rapidly outstripping the overall supply.”
Those analysing the skills shortage recommend that one of the most important factors in addressing the problem is to improve education of key subjects in schools, colleges and universities in order to ensure engineering careers are seen as an exciting choice. Diane agrees: “We have to raise the profile of engineering, to the extent that we can prove this has excellent, long-term prospects, and can offer skills for life that are transferable. The purpose of the Engineering Academy at E.ON, is to promote the career and development opportunites available to engineers, whether at craft, technician or engineer level.
“In taking these first steps, companies such as E.ON have been collaborating closely with government, institutes, organisations and charities within various forums, workgroups and events where we can openly discuss the issues, and how we can improve things for the better. One of the results of these forums is that we have found that the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths – are in decline in some schools. These are subjects that are essential for young people between 13 and 16 in order to go on to apprenticeships and higher education within science or engineering. This is a situation that will only worsen over the years if not addressed now.
“Consequently, one of the most important things governments, institutes, charities and training academies are doing around the UK is supporting schools and initiatives in these subjects through funding, workshops, career fairs and various events to attract the skilled personnel of the future. In fact just this month the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills has given the go ahead for a new National Skills Academy (NSA) for Power, to help the industry tackle the skills shortage in the future. The NSA is about creating a network of training opportunities sector wide, enabling us to work together to solve the common challenges we face.”
The training of young people is an excellent step toward solving the general industry skills shortage, however, many argue that there is one vital factor that these new recruits, and those that have only been involved in the industry for a small number of years lack, and that is experience.
Lindon Roberts is business development manager for Haden Freeman, the UK’s leading independent engineering and consultancy company. With considerable industry experience, together with holding the position of chairman for the International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineers, Lindon is well aware of the lack of skilled engineers across a number of industries. He explains the limitations of recruiting young, inexperienced skilled personnel: “It has been apparent for a number of years that there has been a severe shortage of skilled engineers across the globe, even in the UK alone I would suggest a figure in the thousands of engineers that we are short of.
“When we first started our recruitment drive in earnest, one of the main problems was finding people with the right qualifications, and more importantly, the right experience to do the job to the required standards,” he continues. “Obviously, this is one of the main problems with young engineers, and one of the problems that we are going to find if we are working hard to get young people into the industry quickly.”
Reiterating Diane’s earlier comments regarding education, Lindon flags another problem area affecting the supply of skilled engineers, particularly to the UK sector: “We have worked with various student affiliates at universities and colleges to bring groups of students together, and one of the problems we have encountered is the influx of overseas students on engineering courses. This reflects the high standards of our universities, but the difficulty lies in that when the courses are complete, many of these students take up well-paid work in their home countries, rather than remain in the UK.”
Together with the changes in approach to education, Diane explains more about E.ON’s Engineering Academy, and how it and others like it can help: “There are three main roles to our academy. The first is to raise the profile of engineering based careers both internally and externally. Secondly, we co-operate closely with our employees to care for the career and development of our existing engineers. This involves making sure that, from our apprentices up to our chartered engineers, we are providing a clear route of career path development at every stage of their career to ensure all of our engineers achieve their full potential. Finally, we have three training centres that offer classroom activities, hands-on projects, and workshops in a safe environment.
“The Engineering Academy is progressing very well, and I can see that academies like it will certainly become more popular in the coming years. There are a number of organisations implementing similar strategies, but we need more and more companies to look at setting up areas of excellence that can help people focus on technology and skills that remain in very short supply.”
So, measures are certainly being taken to address the problems that companies are facing around the world, but looking to the future, the question remains, is this a problem that can be eradicated through careful planning and management, or will the industry always face a shortage of people?
“I think that thankfully everyone has recognised that we certainly do need more engineers for the future of a number of industries,” says Lindon. “Our aim is to make people realise that engineering has always offered a wealth of opportunities and involvement in exciting areas, and that in the long-term, it is a job full of prospects. Ultimately, we are looking at a very interesting industry and career to be involved in, and we have to reiterate this point for the industry to survive into the future.”
Concluding, Diane agrees: “This is certainly a long-term problem, partly due to the amount of time it takes to train new recruits and get them to the correct level of expertise. I do not think that it is something that any of us in the industry will be able to eradicate but, most importantly, we are all working hard to put preventative measures in place. It is our duty to raise the profile of engineering as a career in the energy sector, by ensuring people understand these are skills for life, and they can lead to excellent prospects for the future.”
Dianne Burkin is engineering liaison manager at E.ON UK, one of the UK’s leading integrated power and gas companies, generating and distributing electricity, and retailing power and gas.
For further information please visit: www.eon-uk.com
Lindon Roberts works as business development manager at Haden Freeman, a company with more than 20 years industry experience. Today, the business is the UK’s leading provider of independent engineering and consultancy services.
For further information please visit: www.hadenfreeman.com