It brings together cutting edge engineering technology and some of the most challenging environments on Earth – and if you have the right skills it could offer you a lucrative career. Civvy Street takes a look at jobs in the UKÕs offshore oil and gas industry.
Smokers of the world – smile! Smoking in enclosed public spaces may have been banned in Scotland, with the rest of the UK set to follow within the next year, but thereÕs one unexpected exception to the legislation. Bizarre as it might seem – what with all those flammable substances nearby – you can still enjoy a fag in any designated smoking areas on the numerous oil rigs standing in UK waters.
According to the UK Offshore Operators Association (UKOOA), the UK is the ninth largest producer of oil in the world, has been a net oil exporter (in terms of volume) for more than 20 years (a situation expected to continue until 2010) and in 2005, was also able to meet 93% of its overall gas needs.
Although the biggest and most easily developed oil fields around the UK have already been found, and are recognised as being ‘past their peak’ in terms of the number of barrels of oil and gas extracted on a daily basis, this doesn’t mean that the industry no longer offers career prospects. The equivalent of 35 billion barrels of oil and gas have been removed from beneath the North Sea since 1970, but it is estimated that there are still reserves of between 16 and 27 billion barrels to be recovered from both existing and new, smaller fields. Chris Ball, Manager of the RigTrain training centre at Bridge of Don, insists that “The North Sea is very much a viable area for launching a career,” and, according to the UKOOA’s Elizabeth Glover, the region is also aiming to become an industry Centre of Excellence: “Worldwide the oil and gas industry is really taking off. So the North Sea is positioning itself as a major centre of learning, of skills and experience, for the years after the oil and gas has been fully recovered.”
JOBS FOR THE TAKING
According to the most recent estimates, the UK offshore oil and gas industry will provide employment for 380,000 people during 2006 (up 20,000 from 2004), including some 19,000 working offshore.
Though this latter figure is significantly down on the 1990 production peak of 36,000, career opportunities remain good thanks largely to a growing skills shortage. Already, according to statistics from the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE), the average age of oil industry workers – including those working offshore – is edging close to 50, meaning that nearly half of the workforce could potentially be retiring within the next ten years. As a result, the industry is looking for new staff with particular skills. “There are specific areas,” according to Elizabeth Glover. “Technicians (electrical, mechanical and instrument); riggers, the people who lift things and basically move things around; scaffolders; and then the drilling foremen.”
Employment is spread across the UK; while some 100,000 skilled jobs are based in and off the coast of Scotland (with a high concentration around Aberdeen, the ‘Oil Capital of Europe’), more than one in five jobs is located in the south-east of England, while other notable locations are the north of England and East Anglia. Many North Sea workers choose not to live near Aberdeen, preferring to commute northwards to join the regular helicopter flights out to the rigs. After all, in the North Sea, you can expect to work either two/three weeks on, two/three weeks off (depending on employer). No wonder some offshore workers prefer the inconvenience of additional travel when they can enjoy the good weather and low cost of living in the likes of Spain or Malta rather than stay in the UK!
IS THE OIL AND GAS INDUSTRY FOR YOU?
Typical large oilfield platforms will be home to around 100 personnel at any one time; discipline and safety, as with everything else on these remote outposts, is a team effort. Many people speak of there being a ‘family feeling’ amongst those on board, including the cooks, medical staff and engineers who keep both platform and people in A1 condition. So, if you’re looking for a working environment that can offer a genuine equivalent to the discipline, camaraderie and common goals you enjoyed in the Armed Forces – plus the opportunity to ‘rise through the ranks’ – then working offshore could be what youÕre looking for.
It can be physically tough; much of the offshore work directly connected with drilling is, of course, dirty and noisy and it’s also important to remember that weather conditions in the North Sea – particularly in winter – are far from pleasant. As many jobs on oil and gas installations are outdoors, most jobs will in some way be affected by low temperatures, up to gale-force winds, and heavy rain or snow. Despite the best waterproof and warm clothing available, you’ll need to accept that you will get cold and wet sooner rather than later.
If you are already trained as an engineer, electrician, plumber, mechanic, crane operator or fitter – to name just a few jobs – then you’ll have a very good chance of finding work either as a qualified technician or trained craftsperson. You will be expected to have A-level/AS or equivalent qualifications for a technician role or GCSEs for entry at craft level. However, it is also possible to be taken on as a ‘roustabout’ (an unskilled offshore worker) or ‘roughneck’ (someone who carries out drilling under supervision) if you can show your willingness to work hard and the reliability, discipline and focus gained during your time in uniform.
It’s also worth remembering that the companies operating drilling rigs and other offshore installations (including accommodation structures and support vessels) are amongst the largest civilian employers of divers, who work on the maintenance of underwater structures. Following on from this, anyone with practical experience of diver support – particularly through the decompression process – will be attractive to potential employers in the industry.
LOOKING TO QUALIFY?
Cogent – the Sector Skills Council for Chemicals, Nuclear, Oil and Gas, Petroleum and Polymers – is currently finalising new standards, qualifications and training for the oil and gas industry. These will reflect the continually evolving needs of the industry, and in particular its increased focus on safety procedures.
Whatever your existing skills, it’s worth considering basic rig crew courses, which cover not only fire, emergency and survival training but also basic drilling operations and the skills needed by roustabouts and roughnecks.
A new website – www.oilandgas4u.com – has been created to act as a gateway into the industry. “That can be your first port of call,” Elizabeth Glover says. “You can go and have a look at available jobs and do an online test to match your skills against a number of set industry profiles. Depending on what you might be suited to, you’ll then be directed towards companies that are currently recruiting. It’s new – we launched it mid-June – so it’s very much a template upon which we’re going to build.”
Earlier this year, the industry’s main training organization OPITO (Offshore Petroleum Industry Training Organization) launched its Accelerate Programme to aid people with useful experience to enter the sector. “OPITO have developed this to quickly get people into roles where they’ve had some experience,” says Elizabeth Glover. “The programme tops up what they’ve done to date; it gauges what sort of ‘top up’ they need and provides them with the appropriate training. For anyone who is fresh to working offshore, that includes the key factor of safety.”
IN SEARCH OF BLACK GOLD
The UK’s offshore oil and gas industry can definitely offer a worthwhile career with good prospects, particularly ideal for those with engineering or people-management experience, but also for anyone willing to work hard and enjoy the rewards it can bring.
Cogent (Sector Skills Council)
01925 575 200
01224 787 800
OPITO Accelerate programme
UK Offshore Operators Association
020 7802 2400
Oil Careers Website
Society of Petroleum Engineers
020 7299 3300