Decommissioning platforms or a decommissioning workforce?

Is the offshore industry heading towards a skill set meltdown?

The topic of decommissioning is often in the spotlight and a growing emphasis is being put on decommissioning strategies of aging assets. I have been interested in the decommissioning process since university; in fact it was the topic of my dissertation.  Over the next 30 years it is predicted that £30bn worth of decommissioning work will take place in the North Sea alone. Unfortunately the decommissioning of platforms might not be the only element of the offshore industry that faces being 'taken out of service'.

During my career I will see the decommissioning and removal of many aging platforms, that is inevitable, but it would be utter sacrilege if the vast amounts of knowledge that skilled industry personnel have built up over the years gets decommissioned also. The offshore workforce is an aging workforce and many individuals are opting to hang up their tools in favour of an early retirement, at a crucial point when these aging platforms need specialist care and attention.  

It appears that little change in the offshore demographic has occurred since 2006. The 2015 UK Offshore Workforce Demographic Report indicates that the average age of the offshore worker has remained static at 40.8 years old. The offshore workforce and the amount of personnel travelling offshore since 2006 has continued to rise year by year yet the workforce demographic has hardly fluctuated. Many articles hail that the aging workforce myth has been dispelled but statistics seem to suggest otherwise. The current industry downturn affecting hundreds of thousands of individuals across the globe will have dramatic effects on offshore demographics.

Due to the recent plunge in crude oil price, 65,000 jobs have been stripped out of the UK oil industry alone. These cost-cuts could lead to more acute skills shortages in the future. Companies need to be careful that they tread lightly to ensure that key workers possessing important skills remain within the industry to transfer their knowledge to the younger generation of workers. Another aspect of cost-cutting that gets my alarm bells ringing, links back to the devastating events of Piper Alpha. Although I am familiar with the accident due to research relating to my dissertation, many of the younger generation workers unfortunately aren’t. Piper Alpha occurred multiple years before I was born, in a period of industry cost-cutting as a result of the 1986 oil price plunge. Piper Alpha is responsible for the impressive offshore safety culture we have today, but those possessing the knowledge and memories of Piper Alpha are aging and departing the industry.

Times are tough, I am experiencing this downturn first hand. Unfortunately I have not been contracting offshore for a few months now, I have had to take a position onshore within the civil engineering sector to pay my mortgage. The downturn is forcing individuals into an impossible situation, pushing them away from the offshore sector into a variety of onshore roles which offer a greater element of security. The current state of the industry is deterring individuals especially the younger generation away from a career offshore. This year record numbers of students across the UK applied to attend university, the skilled workforce the industry needs is awaiting.

I am a younger generation worker with two years offshore experience in search of a position. Daily I scour through various offshore oil, gas and energy recruitment sites and it is disheartening to see very few if any suitable positions. The majority of the current vacancies are targeted at experienced personnel with 8+ years’ experience. So how exactly do you gain experience if the role requires multiple years of previous experience? 

I feel very fortunate to have spent the past two years within the offshore sector and I will not let this downturn fade my passion for the industry. The 2015 UK offshore Workforce Demographic Report also highlighted a drop of 1.2% in the number of females working within the offshore industry. Women currently make up a mere 3.6% of the offshore workforce, the industry is still heavily male-dominant and the gender gap needs addressing. If executed correctly industry leaders could bridge this growing age and gender gap in one foul swoop. The women’s role within the workplace in other industries has dramatically change over the past century, but unfortunately the Oil and Gas industry is somewhat stuck in the 1940's with regards to female employment patterns, but that is a topic for another blog post.

Bernard Looney, BP’s vice president of Development stated during the Offshore Energy 2015 conference that “We need to emphasize that this is not a sunset industry, but a fast-paced, technological advanced industry that is both exciting and evolving. We need to state how proud we are to work for this industry and how rewarding it is for all involved”. This is a statement I completely agree with and I’m looking forward to brighter times, when the true positive image of the offshore oil and gas industry is portrayed again. Unfortunately 2015 has been a year of many industry negatives but the fantastic memories I have created during my two years offshore still stick with me. We are fast approaching the New Year, 2016 will hopefully be the turning point this industry so desperately needs.

There is only so much you can learn from a text book, the on the job knowledge, advice and experience is crucial as part of any career development. The aging generation of offshore workers are role models that I myself and many other young professionals aspire to be like.

 All images courtesy of Menno Mulder, Offshore Photographer