A wind- and rain-swept platform perched high above a raging North Sea is not many people's idea of an ideal working environment, but Britain's oil and gas industry urgently needs recruits. There is a shortage of skilled workers, and with exploration under way for new reserves, many companies are finding it difficult to get the right staff.
And despite the perception of hostile conditions, many of the positions aren't out on a rig; they are in comfortable offices on dry land.
The shortage is down to a number of issues. North Sea operations are affected by international oil prices which in the past have hit job security. Many experienced workers have taken jobs elsewhere and there is tougher competition for technically skilled workers.
Although jobs in the oil industry are still well paid, wages in many other sectors have also risen. At the same time, the number of UK graduates from science and engineering backgrounds has fallen dramatically. Around 5 per cent of British school leavers are studying for engineering degrees compared with 15 per cent in France and 44 per cent in China.
"Fewer UK schoolchildren are going into engineering, so Shell and our competitors are fishing in a decreasing pond," says Paul Garnham, Shell's global recruitment coordinator for petroleum engineering. "That was OK two or three years ago when we were downsizing, but now things have really turned around. Now we're manning up again big time."
Investment in the UK oil and gas industry is forecast to jump by more than 10 per cent this year, to more than £10bn. But up to a quarter of the workers are due to reach retirement age in the next five to 10 years. So there is a mismatch between the number of staff the industry needs and those available with qualifications and experience.
In an attempt to attract more young people into the industry the recruitment agency JAB has produced an interactive DVD providing information about different jobs, the type of qualifications students will need, what the jobs involve and the money they can expect to earn. The DVD will be shown in schools throughout Scotland, with plans to do the same across the rest of the UK. JAB's managing director, Andrew Ramsay, feels it is an ideal way to show young people what the industry has to offer.
"There's a massive requirement for people and a great deal of movement within the industry," says Ramsay. "There are high salaries, plus plenty of scope for working overseas too.
"In short there are many opportunities and a lot of money to be made, and the DVD shows that."
Neal Hughes is a recent graduate who has benefited from the current recruitment drive. He did his first degree in aerospace engineering at Liverpool University before switching industries and doing an MSc in petroleum engineering at Heriot Watt University. He now works as a reservoir engineer for Senergy, a small company providing specialist skills to the oil and gas industry.
"Your engineering skills have very tangible results," he says. "There's this reservoir of oil a few kilometres below the surface and you can't really know much about it. As a reservoir engineer you try to work out what's down there, where you should put the wells, what equipment is needed and how much to invest. It's interesting. It keeps you on your toes."
One of the concerns that has put many graduates off the UK oil and gas industry is that its lifespan is limited. Estimates range from 10 to 30 years, but in fact only just over half of the reserves have been tapped; 35 billion barrels of oil and gas have been produced since 1967 and there are potentially up to 27 billion barrels left. Paul Garnham of Shell says this means the need for talented people is greater than ever, and that it could still be a job for life.
Fuel for thought: situations vacant
In addition there are opportunities in many non-technical areas such as supply logistics, health and safety, law and finance.
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