Mind the gap - missing engineering skills

Materials World magazine
,
23 Dec 2009

Ali Morshed, Technical Leader at Production Services Network (PSN), Aberdeen, UK, presents his thoughts on gaps in training for new corrosion specialists.

Corrosion is a major integrity threat to many oil and gas assets in the UK. Each requires an asset integrity management system (AIMS) to mitigate this threat. In general, the AIMS should comprise two important components, corrosion engineering (CE), closely associated with an asset’s design phase, and corrosion management (CM), associated with an asset’s operations phase.

For any oil and gas asset, personnel safety, process equipment fitness and environmental protection depend on proper, timely and adequate application of both CE and CM components.

Corrosion engineers are widely employed in the UK oil and gas industry to design, implement, assess and supervise CE and CM applications. This is based on the assumption that they are familiar with both concepts, their applications and, more importantly, their interactions throughout an asset’s operation phase.

However, this assumption is not true in many cases and the CM concept, its scope and applications are not fully appreciated by many corrosion engineers, compared to the CE concept.

Incomplete education

The main topics and skills taught to corrosion engineering students at UK universities are listed in column one of the table. Alternatively, column two lists the main skills required for proper asset integrity management during the operations phase.

While neither of these columns is a comprehensive list of topics, they point to a wide gap between what is taught and what is expected from the engineers once employed.

The skills listed in the first column are all applicable to CE, while those in the second are closely associated with the CM concept. This creates a knowledge gap in the field of asset integrity management within the UK’s oil industry.

Most operators or service companies fill this gap by providing mentoring or on-the-job training for new engineers by more experienced, senior engineers. This approach assumes that senior corrosion engineers have enough time to train their new colleagues in an organised, structured and effective manner within an agreed time frame. This is not the case in most instances.

The main culprit is that workloads are so high that on-the-job training is haphazard and random at best.

Damaging consequences

The main and most significant implication of such a training gap is the constant introduction to the UK’s oil industry of corrosion engineers who are inadequately educated in corrosion management.

This will, in turn, create more adverse consequences in the industry, such as:

• The integrity management-related jobs/activities 
carried out may not be complete or fully effective due to the missing CM component.
• Jobs will take longer to be achieved or completed.
• The overall integrity of the asset will continuously deteriorate.
• The same inadequate corrosion management training will be passed on to future generations, repeating the process.
• Personnel safety and environmental protection decline continuously.
• Asset integrity management costs increase.
• The production rate and continuity decline over time.

The table illustrates these implications and highlights that the latter three implications could be the main outcomes of such a training gap.

Correcting corrosion

There are three solutions – university training, on-the-job training and independent training organisations.

Universities that offer postgraduate corrosion engineering courses could offer an optional module on ‘asset corrosion management in the oil industry’. The main shortcoming of this proposal for full-time students is that they do not know which industry they will be working in. This does not apply to part-time students who are already working in the oil industry and whose education is mainly sponsored by their employers.

Companies which offer on-the-job training should introduce the following changes into their training or mentoring programmes:

• Only senior corrosion engineers who fully understand CM be chosen as training officers (or mentors) for new employees.
• A training framework should be produced by the mentors, encompassing both CE and CM, but with greater emphasis on the latter, with clear and well-defined learning objectives.
• Testing be carried out at the end of the training programme to verify the corrosion engineer has a good knowledge of the basics of asset CM.

Independent groups already involved in corrosion training, research and education could offer asset CM courses. This would close the dichotomy between university and on-the-job training.

Corrosion is a major threat to the integrity of many oil and gas assets in the UK. Its effective and efficient mitigation should rely on the applications of CE and CM principles. If the training gap is addressed, integrity management could be improved and related costs reduced.

Further information: Ali Morshed