The Big Crew Change is Here

Leading by example —
The oil and gas sector is staring a major talent gap in the face. The companies that fare best will be those that invest in their people

People have been warning for more than a decade about the Big Crew Change – the moment when the post-war baby-boomers start to retire and the recruiting slump of the 1980s works its way through to the middle and senior ranks of the oil and gas industry. They’re not warning any more – because it’s happening now.

It is an expanding industry that needs more highly trained professionals, not fewer. The result is a chronic skills gap, particularly among senior project managers, design engineers and geoscientists.

At TAQA, group vice president for human resources Ken Boyle remains sanguine, partly because companies such as TAQA are part of the solution to the talent shortage. “Yes, there’s certainly a skills gap, and probably an age gap as well, since so many oil and gas people were trained so many years ago. But these things tend to sort themselves out in the medium term,” he says.

“There may be more demand, but there are new sources of skills emerging all the time. National oil companies are coming on to the scene, for instance, and developing people very rapidly. They begin by trying to take people from the same pool as everyone else, but they quickly move on to training and developing their own nationals.”

That training and development often starts at graduate level. David Priestley, recruitment business partner at TAQA, says: “We are looking for people who are not merely very strong academically, but who are also self-motivated. For instance, it’s easy to find academic high-flyers who may not be willing to put their heads above the parapet and take decisions. That doesn’t fit with us – we’re a fast-moving, forward-thinking business, and people have to be able to take responsibility.

“Getting graduates with the right skill sets and the right attitudes, balancing the right academic performance with the right business attitudes, isn’t going to be easy.”

When more formal graduate programmes materialise in 2013 and 2014, TAQA will be one of the youngest companies in the industry to have a robust graduate recruitment programme.

“We have to commit to their development, which means having members of staff available for training and mentoring. We have to be able to live up to the promises we would make to them in terms of their careers, but we don’t want to place an undue burden on the staff who are already working for us. It’s a difficult balance to strike,” says Mr Priestley.

Immediate solutions

Schlumberger Business Consulting’s Oil & Gas Human Resources Benchmark Survey, published earlier this year, says that by 2015, about 16,500 petro-technical professionals will have joined the industry around the world, compared with around 22,000 who are expected to leave by then. The study also warns that, although there is increasing competition to recruit the brightest and the best, new graduates alone won’t solve the problem. “The recruitment of new graduates will compensate this loss in total net numbers of petro-technical professionals, but will not fill the experience gap,” it says. It will be 10 or 15 years before newly recruited graduates can start to ease the industry’s problem – in the meantime, employers need more immediate solutions. One option is for workers to remain in employment beyond retirement age – a trend revealed in a survey, Great Crew Change – Fact or Fiction?, from the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, working with the oil industry recruiting firm Working Smart. The May 2012 survey suggested that 23% of technical oil company professionals were aiming to keep working beyond the age of 65. That means their skills and experience will still be available, and they will also be available to mentor younger staff.

A determined drive is also under way throughout the industry to recruit experienced professionals from other industries. OPITO, the global oil and gas industry training organisation, is cooperating with Oil and Gas UK to develop transformation training programmes in the country. They plan to take large numbers of recruits from the armed forces, from the nuclear industry, and from other sectors that have similar engineering skills.

“The options are fantastic in a diverse industry like ours,” says Dr Alix Thom, skills and employment issues manager for Oil and Gas UK. “The skills demand issue is not one problem, but a whole number of strands that affect companies in different subsectors in a variety of ways. However, in terms of career options, there continue to be opportunities for a whole range of professionals, not just engineers or scientists. The North Sea has a long future, and that’s not taking into account decommissioning, which will mean many years of work as well.”

Skills gap

For the long term, the industry is aiming to generate interest in earth science among primary school children, first as a subject to study and later as a possible career. Teachers are offered free professional development workshops with materials and experiments to enable them to deliver lessons, and industry professionals visit schools to deliver workshops and tell the children about their working lives. More immediately, the only answer is to accept that the competition for staff is set to be fierce, and win it. “Of course, we have to have the right rewards system in place, but we also have to give people real professional and leadership development and great opportunities,” says Mr Boyle. “It’s not only about pay. TAQA is a flexible organisation that can give people chances they may not get elsewhere, where you’re waiting for promotion for longer.”

Growth across the industry is exposing the skills gap – but it also means unrivalled opportunities for those with the talent and the determination to take them.