Subsea sector recruitment: rekindling a love of engineering

OE Staff
Saturday, September 1, 2012

The extreme shortage of skilled personnel in the oil & gas industry is arguably the industry's biggest challenge today. Technical solutions may have changed but new challenges remain, particularly in the specialist area of subsea engineering. We need to regain the attraction offshore engineering had in its early days but how?

The offshore and subsea sectors continue to experience rapid growth, fuelled by exploration successes and technological improvements in extraction, processing and transportation systems. We are entering an industry cycle with exploration and production spreading to new and evermore challenging geographical areas and water depths with the whole market facing stricter regulations. All of these factors fuel the need for an adequate number of reliable, highly qualified and experienced personnel in the industry.

As human resources become scarcer, competition to capture them increases resulting in the global mobility of the available labour pool spreading further afield. Operators, contractors and consultancy resources in traditional oil & gas hot spots such as the Gulf of Mexico, North Sea, Brazil and West Africa are under increasing pressure. The current situation drives the engineering and technical human resources cost base, and this in turn pushes up project development costs.

In many cases insufficient and/or under-qualified resources delay the project development process while creating engineering and project management quality issues unacceptable, in the tight schedule framework. Project schedules are impacted and often deferred by human factors rather than by capacity constraints.

Figure 1: Subsea engineering project path algorithm.

The problem can be expected to get worse given the industry's ageing demographic (ie retirement and lack of resource replacement).

The bigger picture

It is worth looking at a bigger picture of the offshore industry before rushing into suggesting new strategies to address the problem. Maybe the main issue lies in the industry itself. There do not appear to be the same resource constraints in other engineering sectors such as aerospace or automotive.

The subsea engineering project path can be illustrated by a funnel analogy (Figure 1). Experience and qualifications of the available human resources translate into expertise, concept formation and innovative thinking that are required in the primary stages of the project development. In the next stages these factors are distilled down by the technology and competitive know-how leading to engineering project execution process.

Figure 2: Problem overview.

The shortage of skilled personnel in the industry has a direct impact on what we put in this funnel and the quality of the resulting project execution.

A number of historical factors which brought us to the current critical situation:
Lack of sustainability in the industry: its cyclic nature has driven many specialists out of oil & gas leading to the current void in workforce, especially in the mid-experience level.
Over the last 30 years various feeds into oil and gas, engineering for example, from the military, naval or marine sectors or through traditional apprenticeships have disappeared.
In the UK and some other western European countries, there seems to be a decline of engineering as a career choice leading to many going to other industries, such as banking in the 80s and the dotcom businesses in the 90s.
The shift from the bulk of the resources being retained by the operators to the contracting community in the last two decades has had a profound effect. Now it seems at least some of the large operators want to reverse this trend and are recruiting engineers.
National oil companies have become increasingly important in recent years and the impact on engineering resource needs has been manifold; in particular this has led to specific requirements to provide service locally, including the training of indigenous resources.
The oil and gas hot spots are becoming importers of engineering resources from India, Southeast Asia and China. In these locations engineering remains an attractive profession.
For the larger projects the technology in the industry has moved from a series of products used as building blocks to a systems engineering approach. Systems engineering in itself requires a lot of experience and specialist know-how.

Also consider the following observations, illustrated by Figure 2.
In our opinion the industry would benefit from attracting more engineers with higher qualifications, in particular from top tier universities.
Too often we are seeing the under-skilled and inexperienced in key technical and management positions. Moreover, it is not uncommon to see senior technical personnel with just a few years experience in high decisionmaking roles.
There are presently only a few offshore engineering programmes and the industry would benefit from a greater number of educational institutions offering such courses.
There is a demand for the establishment of recognised professional bodies with a standard to which offshore/subsea engineers can become qualified with a formal continuous professional development programme that is associated with a professional standard.

The opportunity

Despite the current gloomy picture, the products and offshore procedures used in the industry are getting smarter and we have moved away from the big and heavy approach of the past. The engineered solutions are using smarter engineering processes to virtually model and test the requirements in a cyber-environment. An analogy is the difference between a 1970s and modern-day car, both adopt the same conceptual technology but engineers of the 1970s would not fit in todays automotive engineering companies.

Systems engineering offers the opportunity to build redundancy and risk-reducing measures into the project, ensuring that the engineering demands for the components are isolated and the overall plan meets the project requirements for price, schedule and accountability.

If we agree the engineered approach is now a necessity after a history of poor self-regulation or regulatory control in the industry, we can also embrace the systems engineering approach to project developments.

Dan Jackson is co-founder and CEO of DeepSea Group, an independent subsea engineering consultancy established in 2000. With over 20 years subsea engineering experience, he has worked with oil & gas companies and contractors in major offshore basins.
Mick Hibbert is senior consultant with DeepSea UK. He has over 40 years project management, project engineering and detailed engineering experience in the heavy engineering industry, and for the last 35 years has worked in offshore oil & gas sector.

The solutions

There is no quick fix to this problem – we need to awake a passion for the industry in those contemplating entering it, highlighting the range of skill sets required both at technical and management level.

Based on DeepSeas own experience, these are some of the measures we believe would help remedy the situation in the long run:
It is important to nurture existing engineering personnel, training, monitoring and measuring professional development of employees and their suitability for the work in a structured way. However, training and development isn't quick, it is a commitment to the individual and must be considered a longterm investment backed by an industry that can demonstrate a sustainable commitment to the future.
To move forward and be in sync with the industry's aggressive growth, we need to develop engineering disciplines akin to the aerospace and automotive industries that have changed and adapted dramatically over the last 20 years. Those industries are dominated by process-driven transferable engineering practices and discipline engineering functions rather than domain-knowledge engineering functions.
Investment in knowledge management processes helps to retain the understanding and lessons learned that refine the engineering process with each subsequent project. It also allows the knowledge to be kept in the business rather than with the individual and is consistent with the systems engineering philosophy. Indeed a systems approach with specialists complementing a process should be the principle for subsea development projects going forward.
We need to revive the transfer of wisdom from the experienced to the inexperienced as part of in-house training.
A process-driven engineering approach makes it possible to take capacity from outside the industry hot-spots and utilise qualified personnel in the other regions, where engineering is a highly respected career, costs are more balanced and the engineering base is sustainable.

In conclusion, the oil & gas industry and in particular the offshore and subsea sectors have a lot to offer our next generation of engineers. Of course on the outside it is a hard, heavy industry but on the inside is also an art form with high-end technologies and phenomenal levels of detail. More than ever before the engineering challenge needs to attract the best and we should be changing as an industry to ensure this happens. OE

Categories: Oil Engineering Subsea Activity Energy

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