Digital and Dynamic: A new direction for UK skills

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OPITO’s latest UKCS Workforce Dynamics report explored the skills needed for an increasingly digital energy sector of the future. Now the skills body is charting the path to make it a reality.

The energy industry of 2025 will be very different to that of 2019. Developments in technology, regulation, business composition and corporate strategy will lead to profound changes in how the industry works over the next decade, for oil and gas in particular. It will be the industry workforce who drive much of this change, many of whom will work in new roles and with new tools at their disposal; but how can they be trained, supported and empowered to get there?

Central to this conversation is OPITO, the global not-for-profit skills body for the energy industry. Its primary remit is to ensure the industry supports a safe and skilled workforce, and it does so through over 200 accredited training centres in 45 countries worldwide. These centres certify over 350,000 people annually.

OPITO is also playing a strategic role in driving the skills agenda. In looking to the future of the oil and gas workforce, it has produced detailed reports that explore the skills landscape. In turn, these will help inform and prepare a route map that will guide all stakeholders on the way ahead.

This newly formulated route map will set out the journey the UK energy industry will have to make if it is to possess the requisite skills and competencies for a successful future. It will outline how multiple parties can work together between now and 2025 to shape a workforce profile that is fully equipped for the digital age. The process represents nothing less than a transformation in terms of the skills, disciplines and specialisms that will be part and parcel of a new era for the industry.

“We have to accept there is a ‘new normal’ and, now that we are beginning to understand what the possibilities are for the future, we have to find a way a way of getting there.”

The new normal

“We have to accept there is a ‘new normal’ and, now that we are beginning to understand what the possibilities are for the future, we have to find a way a way of getting there,” explains OPITO chief executive John McDonald. “Over the past few years, great strides have been made in terms of industry modernisation and efficiency, and we saw an ideal opportunity to drive the development of a skills strategy.”

OPITO has moved the issue forward in partnership with other industry bodies. Specifically, its series of UKCS Workforce Dynamics reports assess the industry’s evolving skills and capability requirements. The first of these, issued in 2018, looked at the period to 2035. The second, published this year, focused on an intermediate timeframe to 2025 and pinpointed several specific areas of development.

“It reflects the impact of technology, innovation and rapidly-changing business models,” explains John. “There is a greater number of smaller, more nimble organisations in both the operator and contractor communities, and that’s creating new opportunities and new ways of working. These, in turn, require new skills and competencies.

“While our industry has a very successful track record in technological development, there is scope to accelerate the pace of that work – the successful work of the Oil & Gas Technology Centre [OGTC] is an example of how that can be done – and to increase the pace of skills development work also.”

The 2019 UKCS Workforce Dynamics: The Skills Landscape 2019 – 2025 report, developed in conjunction with Robert Gordon University’s Energy Transition Institute, surveyed around 1,000 people across 140 organisations. Released in May of this year, it charts where and how skills are changing, and where there are opportunities for UK-based companies and their employees.

The report estimates that the UKCS industry will need to attract 10,000 new people in the period to 2025, in part to counteract attrition and retirement trends. Some of those will fill an estimated 4,500 roles that do not yet exist. “That for me is an exciting proposition – how do we prepare not just ‘new’ people but also the existing workforce for those new roles?” says John. “We have to figure out precisely what those jobs are, and how we get people ready for them.”

The UKCS Workforce Dynamics report also helps explore how and where those personnel will be working. While operators lead much of the conversation around oil and gas activity their staff will make up only 9% of the 2025 workforce, the OPITO report estimates that 91% will work for contractors and the wider supply chain. Additionally, three-quarters of all personnel are forecast to work in technical roles, and 25% in business.

The subsequent route map being developed by OPITO is designed to find a way through a complex learning environment that encompasses everything from primary and secondary education through to colleges, universities and specialist training providers. “All of these – and more – are part of the supply chain that provides the industry with the skills and expertise it needs, and we know many parts of that chain want to contribute ideas about the changes we need to see,” he adds.

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Forging Alliances

As a key step forward, OPITO has issued a call to action to a wide range of stakeholders – including OGUK, organisations across industry, education and the public sector – to join a new Skills Alliance. It’s hoped the first meeting of the Alliance will take place before the end of 2019, after which groups will be established to deal with specific and varied challenges faced in this arena. These groups will then report back to the Skills Alliance.

“We believe it’s how we effect change – bringing the best people together to look at the challenges and develop solutions,” says John. “It’s also important, and welcome, that we have the support of both the Scottish and UK Governments in this work, through ministers, civil servants and agencies such as Skills Development Scotland [SDS],” he adds. “They’re asking us how government can help the process, and that’s encouraging.”

John says the ultimate goal is to shape, and sustain, an increasingly flexible, multi-skilled and technology-enabled workforce – one which will feature new titles, roles and responsibilities in the fast-emerging digital oilfield. “We’ve envisaged what certain jobs might look like in the future, with titles such as system anthropologist, artificial intelligence & machine learning specialist and augmented reality experience creator. In truth, it probably includes roles we can’t anticipate yet.”

OPITO is also confident that the challenges and skills demanded by these new roles will also help attract a new generation. “We need to keep attracting young people into the industry and I’m absolutely convinced that these new opportunities, based as they are on advanced technology, will help to us to do that.”

The same principle forms part of the industry’s moves to position itself as part of the long-term, low-carbon solution, which should attract young people who want to help find answers to the questions around long-term sustainability issues.

“We need to keep attracting young people into the industry and I’m absolutely convinced that these new opportunities, based as they are on advanced technology, will help to us to do that.”

Retain, retrain

For people in the existing workforce – more than 80% of whom are expected to still be working in the industry by 2025 – the strategy places much of the focus on retaining and retraining – two of its four guiding principles. In doing so it places a premium on upskilling – i.e. equipping people with new capabilities to broaden their skills set and position them to perform better in their current job – or reskilling, which equips them to take on new industry roles and responsibilities.

The increasing automation of so-called transactional work – tasks typically defined as routine or repetitive activities – is also seen as a means of enhancing efficiency and productivity. The report notes that significant upskilling and reskilling will be needed to realise those gains; it refers to workforce expectations that transactional activity will be reduced by around 40% by 2025, shifting staff activity towards more operational and strategic activities.

Similarly, the learning and development methods used by educational institutions and training providers will also need to be the subject of radical, technology-led change. “It is already turning learning on its head – from the traditional methods of a trainer standing in front of a classroom of people, to a new world of self-study, virtual classrooms and groups, using online learning, engagement and assessment,” says John.

“It’s the same with simulation, which is transforming the way we learn in areas such as drilling and lifting. And anyone who doubts the value of simulation should remind themselves of how pilots and astronauts learn their trade.”

He believes the industry will face growing competition from other sectors in the modern-day working world, forging their careers based on their specialist discipline rather than an individual industry. “I think young people are increasingly looking at opportunities across different industries, and that is something we need to take into account,” says John.

Employers looking to recruit and retain staff will also have to be cognisant of the push towards decarbonisation and the challenges of meeting net zero. It’s no small issue, but something that John believes the industry can respond to positively. “What I would say is: ‘Come and join us, come and help us realise net-zero carbon as a reality. Work in this dynamic, technology-led industry that is going to be around for a long time to come.’”

With 2025 just a few short years away, the seeds of any meaningful skills strategy must be sown now if the energy sector is to equip itself with the staff and knowledge it needs. Encouragingly, OPITO’s report and the subsequent routemap being developed will offer a positive pathway towards ensuring this is made a reality, and with the support of the UK’s supply chain companies, universities, trade groups, training providers and governments, the future of the digitally native energy workforce looks assuredly bright.


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