Bridging the skills gap: an operator's view

September 1, 2012

Recruiting and retaining skills remains one of the industrys biggest talking points. In this OE two-parter examining the issue from differing offshore sector perspectives, operator BP's Simon Drysdale discusses the need for continual nurturing of existing talent, while consultant DeepSeas' Dan Jackson and Mick Hibbert suggest innovative ways of dealing with the acute challenges in their specialist area of subsea engineering.

With the long-term uptick in oil prices and ever increasing global demand for energy, those outside the sector may think that the future looks very bright for any oil & gas company, but, still, we face our challenges. Attracting the right talent, with the appropriate skills, is a cross-sector challenge which has received an unprecedented level of media coverage over recent years.

To put this in perspective, last year BP took on around 6000 people globally, including nearly 1000 university graduates, and we expect to recruit a similar number in 2012.

While a great deal of talk and attention has been given to the need to recruit, there is also a need to retain and maximise the capability of the existing workforce. We need to ensure that our teams are continually learning and developing, both for the good of their careers and for the long- term success of the company. Simply put, oil prices above $90/bbl alone will not deliver success; the industry needs to ensure that the global workforce is in a continual cycle of learning new skills and career development.

Why we are where we are

With the constant focus on the need to bridge the apparent skills gap, many people within the industry ask: Did you not see this coming? I believe the more important question is: Why has a skills gap and subsequent war for talent emerged?

In my view, a combination of sporadic hiring, reflective of the fluctuating oil price, a lack of engagement with younger generations, coupled with an ever ageing workforce, has led to the current skills gap.

The oil and gas industry has a history of hiring and up-skilling of the workforce based on the current oil price. Traditionally, when oil prices have fallen workers have been made redundant, and when oil prices spike, the industry battles to acquire as much resource as possible as they embark on a talent acquisition programme. There is a need to move away from this model of recruiting to one where we invest whatever is required to ensure our sector has the right skills in the right places and is ready to adapt to both macro and micro economic changes.

While planning and economic forecasting have a role to play in the current skills gap, external influencers also exist. The last 15 years has seen the rise of The City graduate, with an ever-increasing number of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) students choosing to pursue a career on a trading platform rather than a production platform. These highly intelligent and educated individuals have shied away from our sector in recent years, and who can blame them? They have been promised long rewarding careers and salaries to match. As a sector, we have responded by continuing to be poor at engaging and educating tomorrow's generation about the critical role we play in the world and the fantastic career opportunities we offer. We need to get better at this and build advocacy as a sector.

Formal learning

We must not forget that while bringing new recruits and young talent into the sector is of paramount importance, the continual development of the sector's employees is of equal importance. Huge investment is required to ensure our employees continually find, develop, extract and bring to market hydrocarbon resources in the most safe and efficient way.

At BP, we are committed to bringing in young talent and continually training our existing workforce. Development of staff is a key corporate objective and we subsequently now invest over $500 million each year in training and development. We have developed and implemented global flagship programmes specifically for the development of young talent, including the Challenge Programme, which maps out the first three years of an individuals career and allows graduates to sample three differing roles within the organisation, providing consistent and structured learning throughout.

Additionally, we have recognised that the training of new talent needs to be extended beyond these three initial years and have subsequently developed and implemented the E&P excellence Programme for upstream staff. The programme offers a further seven years and aims to offer personal depth and increased operational capability.

Informal learning

Monetary investment in employee learning and development is critical, but formal programmes alone are not a proven recipe for success, and in some corporate cultures formal learning can become a tick box exercise. Informal learning, the passing on of knowledge to emerging talent, and fostering a collaborative culture is of equal importance. We believe there is a need to develop as well as formally train our employees and this can only realistically be achieved through structured mentoring programmes.

BP is well known within the industry for having this collaborative culture and our graduates and new joiners are always vocal about the level of time invested in them by team members and senior members of staff. We are strong believers in the old fashioned term of mentoring. All graduates and new joiners are assigned a mentor and meet on a regular basis to discuss challenges that have been faced, both from the technical side and as part of the development of so-called soft skills.

simon drysdaleSimon Drysdale is head of upstream human resources at BP and a member of the companys upstream executive team, dividing his time between London and Houston. A HR professional with experience in both the mining and oil & gas industry, he joined BP in Cape Town 23 years ago as labour relations director for Africa and has since held various HR leadership roles in South Africa, Aberdeen, London and the US.

Multi-company learning

While the industry has come a long way in its training processes, a uniform approach to learning and development is required to ensure existing staff, from all areas of the globe, have a steady, reliable and consistent training and career development programme. By its very nature, the oil & gas industry has a history of being collaborative. Our organisations partner on the overwhelming majority of global projects and we rely on and utilise a great number of service companies to ensure the global workforce remains mobile and adaptable to constant changes in their clients needs.

Our industry does better than many others at facilitating and encouraging learning and development across multiple organisations, and industry bodies, such as OPITO, are becoming increasingly important in encouraging and facilitating multi-company training programmes. That said, more could and should be done. Increasing the skills and capability for the sector as a whole is without doubt a positive for the organisations operating within it.

In order to maximise capability across the whole sector, there is a need to move towards standardised international learning and development practices. At present learning and development, and even formal training, differs by company and by country.

Change cannot happen overnight, but I believe standardisation should be a core area of focus for the industry over the next 10 years.

All stakeholders have a role to play here. The result can only mean an increase in safety, capability and operational efficiency. OE

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