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Sound advice: Mentoring in oil and gas

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There’s no substitute for experience when it comes to supporting people of all ages as they make their way in the industry. Wireline explores why mentoring matters.

Concerns over skill shortages are frequently expressed in the oil and gas industry, particularly as it grapples with reduced margins, an ageing workforce and competition from other sectors. Often however, less attention can be paid to developing existing talent, whether at apprentice level, amongst graduates and new recruits, or even for those far on in their careers.

Mentoring is one method of supporting professional development and helps ensure that skills and knowledge gained through individual experience can be passed on to the next generation of personnel. As well as varied efforts made within individual companies themselves, a diverse range of organisations have embraced the principle to help individuals develop their careers – and ensure the industry has the skills and talent in place to secure its long-term goals.

The Aberdeen X-Industry Support Network (AXIS), an organisation focused on increasing gender balance in the local energy industry, is now running its second cohort in an increasingly popular mentoring scheme. The AXIS programme was launched in 2016 and the numbers involved have grown from ten pairings in each of a pilot scheme and first cohort, to 14 in the latest one.

Sarah Clark, who leads mentoring for the network, says the programme structure not only helps those involved pursue their career ambitions, but supports AXIS’ wider objectives of promoting gender balance by broadening the horizons of everyone taking part.

She believes that mentoring, as an approach to people development, complements other forms of training. “If you go on a training course, you perhaps take about 10% of the imparted knowledge away with you,” she says. “There may be resources to support that learning afterwards, but with mentoring it’s continuous. You’re not just being told stuff – it’s more holistic, based on an exchange of views and ideas.”

 

Exploring resources

Some programmes have also been set up to aid specific disciplines. Since 2014, the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board (ECITB) has run a successful offshore project management mentoring programme that has so far brought together nearly 50 pairings.

The programme emerged from an acknowledgment around five years ago that there was a gap in the way industry was developing its project management capabilities. Under its auspices, an offshore project management steering group was formed which in turn led to the introduction of a two-level mentoring scheme: a foundation programme for people with at least three years’ background in project-related roles or following an academic route into the discipline, and a strategic programme for personnel with at least five years’ experience including managing complex projects.

The ECITB uses an anonymised pairing process and development is based in part on a competency gap analysis completed by prospective mentees.

“Mentoring is one of the best ways to help relatively inexperienced people who have built up their knowledge through training programmes, for example,” says ECITB director of operations Andy Brown. “It provides a context for the individuals to implement that knowledge.”

The fact that the programmes are independent of the workplace is beneficial too – all three eliminate the potential constraints associated with being mentored by someone from within the participant’s own business. “It’s a ‘safe’ environment in which they can ask what they may think are stupid questions or challenge something. Sometimes their own work environment might not feel like the right place to do that,” explains Andy.

Carol Sinclair, ECITB account manager for Scotland and mentoring scheme manager, says both parties in the mentor/mentee relationship can benefit from the experience. “It’s about the mentor helping to guide the mentee to explore new issues and options, rather than just providing the answers,” she says. “At the same time, our mentors get something out of it. They want to make a difference; they’re very passionate about supporting new people coming through the project management profession.”

The AXIS programme is similarly based on a confidential process of matching mentors and mentees. Each cohort runs for six-months, with the network team providing ‘light touch’ support if needed.

“We introduce them electronically and let them take it from there,” says Sarah. “They choose how to run their relationship. We don’t have any formal involvement at the end of the six months, but the mentoring association often carries on.”

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Girish Kabra, Director of Decommissioning, Spirit Energy

Girish Kabra, Director of Decommissioning, Spirit Energy

Mentor of the Year, Oil & Gas UK Awards 2016

Why is mentoring important within oil and gas?
Mentoring is important in oil and gas, especially with an aging workforce and a shortage of key skills. The last downturn led to a number of experienced individuals leaving the industry. Meanwhile, new recruits are shying away. Mentoring career-ready interns to attract talent is key to bringing a sea-change in our industry and fulfilling the skill and age gap.
What makes a good mentor?
A mentor should be a good listener and able to extract the hidden talent from the mentee. They should make mentees comfortable and be careful that they don’t feel intimidated – a good mentor should act as a sounding board and shape mentees’ ideas through experience.
What do mentorships/programmes offer that is different to other training/learning methods?
Mentoring relationships can be lifelong and should be informal. Training and learning are more formal ways to enhance skills, while mentorship programmes offer a structured way of pairing relationships and regular catch-up sessions. Mentoring programmes provide a platform for different mentors to interact and share their knowledge, skills and experiences, which is equally applicable to mentees as well.
Is there a culture of mentoring in the industry? Should more be done to foster it?
The oil and gas industry – and particularly most of the operators and supply chain companies – have mentoring programmes in place that provide a platform for young professionals to interact with senior roles and hone technical and leadership skills. In a period of downturn, the importance of mentoring is even more pronounced. We are doing it, we are doing it right and I think we need to just keep doing more of it.
Are there skillsets or groups of people that need greater mentoring support from industry?
Yes, definitely there are. We see a lot of good young people are now taking alternative career opportunities and there is a general shortage of apprentices in the industry. Apprentice programmes therefore require more focus and support from the industry.

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A sector in Transition

The Association for Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers (AFBE-UK), an organisation that encourages people of black and minority ethnicity (BME) to study engineering, runs programmes and activities from which mentoring relationships develop routinely. At AFBE-UK, mentoring activities mainly revolve around a programme dubbed “Transition” which helps to prepare young people for the world of work.

Scottish Chair Ollie Folayan says its introduction was partly fuelled by the high rates of people of BME origin graduating with an engineering-related degree but then struggling to secure a job.

The programme’s centrepiece events are twice-yearly employability workshops where industry professionals work with students on mock interviews, CV reviews and assessment centres. “It’s a simple format but it really works,” explains Ollie. “It’s an informal setting and students have the opportunity to ‘fail’. In fact, that’s part of the purpose – people have the leeway to make their mistakes there and learn from them.”

The Transition programme has reached over 800 students in Aberdeen alone and has now been introduced at universities across the UK via the organisation’s national network.

A 2016 survey indicated that over 50% of people who had taken part between 2011 and 2014 had secured a degree-relevant post within six months. The figure reached 70% over a 12-month timeframe. Even more encouragingly, 78% of all respondents believed the programme had contributed to their professional success.

Ollie says many mentorships have developed out of contacts made at the workshops. “The relationships between mentors and mentees come as a natural consequence of their interaction – it’s an organic process.” He believes the close links between the oil and gas industry and professional institutions which promote the principles of mentorship help make it a significant feature of the industry landscape.

He is also confident that mentoring has a role to play in ensuring workforce continuity and supporting knowledge transfer, particularly during times when the job market is fluid and people move around more often.

Transition is one of a series of interlinked AFBE-UK programmes that contribute to the overall mentoring culture in the organisation.

Adds Ollie: “I would certainly have liked help to prepare for the challenges I encountered in my earlier career. If I’d had a mentor, I could have had some insight into how to react to certain situations and that’s a big driver for me in doing this. I didn’t have that as someone starting out.”

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Project controls engineer Catherine Wilson.
Project controls engineer Catherine Wilson joined the AXIS programme in 2017 and has remained in contact with her mentor following the initial six months.
She works for energy services firm WorleyParsons in Aberdeen and says she has benefited over recent years from “really helpful” mentorships arranged by her employer.
However, she feels an external programme offers an extra dimension of support. “At this point in my career I feel that someone with an unbiased opinion can help me to make decisions that are less business focused and more about me and my career,” she says.
Catherine was aware of the programme from her participation in other AXIS events and believes it’s important to take advantage of such opportunities when they come along.
Her mentor works for another company, in a department that’s different from Catherine’s usual work connections. “He has different experiences and knowledge,” she adds. “He doesn’t necessarily offer me advice; he’s there to speak to whenever I want, and to guide me to come to my own realisations. It’s very refreshing to have that independent support.”

 

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Giving back

Sarah believes that mentoring has taken on a higher profile in recent years, although that doesn’t mean it is something that can be adopted universally. “It’s a great option to have but it’s not something anyone should be pushed into. You have to want to be a mentor or mentee – you need to have a passion for either passing on knowledge or benefiting from the experience of others.”

The value of the programme, she says, lies in taking mentoring beyond the stereotypical approach, whereby mentors might look to help someone within their company whom they see as a younger version of themselves. That has benefits for mentors too. “It pushes the boundaries and puts mentees together with mentors who are not just like them,” she adds. “It gives them the opportunity to branch out and make it more of a rounded process.”

Adds Andy: “Whether mentor or mentee, it’s important to do it because you believe it’s the right thing to do. That’s the only way you’ll make the most of your commitment. Don’t do it because you feel you must or your business told you to.

“If you’re a mentor, think about how your experience can shape the success of the industry. You’re putting something back.”

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Alan Smith, Maintenance & Inspection Leader for Central Graben Operations, Total E&P UK,

Alan Smith, Maintenance & Inspection Leader for Central Graben Operations, Total E&P UK.

Mentor of the Year finalist, Oil & Gas UK Awards 2016

Why is mentoring important within oil and gas?
Mentoring is important to help develop the technical and business skills and more importantly the confidence of developing engineers. It is important for experienced engineers to pass on knowledge and experience and to provide guidance on best practices.
What makes a good mentor?
An ability to listen and to assess the needs of the developing engineer and to provide guidance on how the engineer can achieve their goals.
Is there a culture of mentoring in the industry? Should more be done to foster it?
I am not sure if there is a widespread culture of mentoring in the industry, however it should certainly be promoted as a positive thing. I have found through my career that more experienced engineers have always been keen to help and provide guidance where I have asked for help or assistance.
Are there skillsets or groups of people that need greater mentoring support from industry?
I would say that with the reduction in numbers coming through apprenticeships and graduate schemes, there are less people coming up through the industry armed with base technical hands on skills and technical knowledge. The best engineers in my experience are the ones who have started at the bottom and worked their way up.
Any advice you would give to prospective mentors and mentees?
Be open and available, be friendly, be honest, be encouraging and where negative feedback is required, ensure that this comes with feedback and positive and constructive ways to improve.

This article first appeared in the Autumn 2018 issue of Wireline.

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