Pooling resources in oil and gas

Materials World magazine
1 Oct 2008

Nearly a year after its launch, OPITO – the UK’s Oil & Gas Academy, is making strides to secure a safe and effective workforce in the sector. Rupal Mehta explores how the industry-led body acts as a focal point for skills, learning and workforce development.

As a mature basin for exploration, the UK oil and gas extraction sector faces immense technological challenges and the need for operational and capital efficiency to maximise resource recovery from the North Sea and make the sector competitive in the global market. Creating a larger ‘talent pool’ of future employees to draw from is therefore vital as is continuing to develop the current workforce.

OPITO – the UK’s Oil & Gas Academy – was launched in November 2007 and is leading the way in this endeavour. Business Development Manager Annette Thomas says, ‘The Academy reflects changes in the way industry is organising itself. The sector recognises it requires much more collaborative relationships between all companies to maximise the return on investment’.

The Academy, headquartered in Aberdeen, UK, is an independent body funded by industry and has a UK-wide remit. Its Chief Executive, David Doig, has over 25 years’ experience in oil and gas. The objective is to address employers’ and employees’ needs surrounding education, training and skills.

Talking the talk

The UK Continental Shelf (UKCS) is a mature province, but it still offers a raft of career opportunities in engineering, materials science, geoscience, and supply chain management. Only about a half of Britain’s reserves have been recovered.

‘The industry is and will remain an important contributor to the energy mix,’ says Thomas.

The Academy’s team is meeting with individual executive officers, training forums of related trade associations and the skills group for Oil and Gas UK, the representative body for the UK offshore oil and gas industry. It seeks to understand the relevant company, sector and pan-industry perspectives. This feeds into streams of activity.

‘If you think about a long pipe coming into that talent pool, that is the focus on feedstock stream. It’s about an investment into that pipeline through relationships with schools and universities to support the science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects,’ explains Thomas.

Rather than ‘march’ into schools, OPITO is working closely with educationalists who are already active in the field. It is collaborating with the UK’s Earth Science Education Unit, based at Keele University, and the UK’s Institute of Physics to develop teaching materials and workshops that engage students, some of which are now being piloted.

The Academy is also introducing an ambassadors programme for its Modern Apprentices to return to their schools and talk about experiences in industry, and it held a careers event in Aberdeen in June called ‘Energise your future’. Events elsewhere in the UK are being planned.

Keeping an eye on successful practice elsewhere and adapting it is helpful, says Thomas, as well as exploiting all channels of communication.

An online portal providing information and interactive tools for prospective workers in the industry was introduced by OPITO last year (www.oilandgas4u.com), with about £150,000 invested in a promotional ‘Go Explore’ campaign. The site has had 45,000 hits so far this year.

A softer touch

With higher education, a shared learning agenda is in the offing to ensure ‘employability skills’ are not ignored. Thomas explains, ‘Industry says, “you can be an electrical engineer but we also want you to be an engineer that can work in a team, communicate effectively, solve problems, etc”. We feel if we work with education, we can improve the time it takes for a raw graduate to become a fully contributing member of the sector’.

The first agenda-setting meeting between industry and academia will be held in November to find ways of integrating these ‘soft skills’ into undergraduate and postgraduate education.

Supply and demand

Meanwhile, another stream focuses on creating a ‘world class supply chain’ by communicating professional development needs to commercial training providers, and auditing their qualifications and courses for OPITO approval. The aim is to increase the range of entry-level routes into the industry from the school leaver to graduate, as well as ensure quality training provision for existing employees.

Technical and specialist groups covering all disciplines allow workers to voice their job-related concerns, and OPITO also produces industry standards, such as on health and safety, to raise the bar in training.

In the pipeline

Thomas believes that the Academy’s ‘unique selling point’ is that, unlike other UK skills academies, it is not Government funded. ‘Although we want to be part of the wider skills agenda through [our Sector Skills Council] Cogent, everything we do has to be approved by industry,’ she says.

Garry Dryburgh of AMEC Group Ltd, a supplier of engineering and project management services to the energy and power industries, based in Aberdeen, fully backs this premise of the Academy. He says, ‘There have been stories that the North Sea is coming to an end when it’s not. I think we will have a huge skills gap in all disciplines of energy over the next decade. It is not clear to teachers and career advisors what opportunities exist, and so there is [scope] to take ownership of skills development and increase awareness. [The Academy] is engaging with the key stakeholders to ensure the next generation of scientists and engineers’.

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