Back to black: opportunities in oil and gas

New fields to explore, new technology to exploit, new opportunities in renewables which means the old workforce might shove off - time to get back to the black stuff

A career in oil and gas has always been top of the list for those engineers who want to see the world. And although the recession and low oil prices have put many projects on hold, the industry looks to have lost none of its sheen for those with a sense of adventure. 

"Libya has just opened the doors to foreign oil companies and I am starting to see jobs advertised for exploration in Antarctica, which is another previously untapped area," says Kevin Forbes, who works in the sector as a contractor and founded the specialist website.

No one is going to pretend the industry is out of the woods yet and young engineers still face stiff competition from more experienced people who also find themselves on the job hunt after the recession, but Forbes is among those who is starting to see the signs of recovery. 

Added to this, he believes factors such as the growth in renewables and boom in the nuclear industry will eat into the oil and gas workforce, potentially helping to create more opportunities for young engineers.   

So for those who want to target the oil and gas industry, what skills are in demand, how can they make themselves more marketable and what sort of career can they expect?

David Hendry, senior lecturer at the School of Engineering at Aberdeen University and its IET student counsellor, says a career path may begin by gaining offshore and overseas experience, "leading on to working in a range of engineering disciplines as a design engineer, and working up to project leader," he says, adding that today's young engineers must be good communicators, motivated, self confident and above all have excellent technical skills.

Sarah Cockburn, UK graduate resourcing manager at BP, says developing "employability" skills as well as technical ones will help aspiring graduates. She also stresses that they must be geographically flexible. 

"The nature of our business means we operate in challenging and sometimes remote environments and graduates should be prepared to go where the opportunities are," she says.

Hendry says specific areas where there are likely to be opportunities at the moment include subsea and subsurface control and instrumentation, an important export market for the UK.

The industry is always facing new challenges so young engineers need to keep abreast of developments since they might provide a clue as to where future opportunities lie. 

"At the moment, it [the industry] needs to find ways to drill both deeper, and in deeper waters more economically," says Hendry. "With the current price of oil, there are opportunities for creative minds to bring previously uneconomic wells back into production. These are among the big issues so there is always scope for innovation."  

One of the research projects at Aberdeen at the moment focuses on resonance enhanced drilling (RED) which is exploring how drilling rates can be increased using non-linear dynamics. This has huge potential in the area of hydrocarbon exploration and production and for future exploitation of geothermal resources.  

Annika Joelsson, recruiting communications manager at Schlumberger, says one of the challenges the oilfield services industry is facing today is the degree of complexity of the projects in which the organisation is involved and this means graduates have got to be prepared to diversify. 

"For a graduate, or a young professional, it used to be enough to be competent in one technical domain," she says. "Today it is rarely enough, which means that they have to develop their technical expertise in a number of different technical domains. From a career development point of view, this means that there are exciting opportunities for them if they have strong technical curiosity and enjoy working with others."  

Graduates can make themselves more marketable to employers by looking for an internship and Nick Brown, graduate marketing manager, UK and Ireland at Shell, says the company runs them all year round for anything between two weeks to three months. 

"Internships are a good way to find more about a company you are interested in. It can also put you on the employer’s radar at an early stage," he says. "The coaching and experience you gain from more experienced peers is essential for a career in any company." He adds that if an intern performs well, Shell could provide an offer of full-employment upon graduation.  

Other routes into oil and gas could include industry initiatives aimed at potential recruits. BP is currently involved in the BP Ultimate Field Trip, a project in which first and second year science, technology, engineering, and mathematics students at UK universities are briefed to come up with interesting and innovative ways of dealing with the carbon capture and storage. The winning team of three will all receive a six to eight week paid internship with BP in the North Sea.

Finally, as in any sphere of work, you will help your cause by doing some networking within the sector and building your base of contacts. This is easier said than done for students busy with studies but the industry does have its own social networking site, launched by Kevin Forbes, which enables you to makes contacts from the desktop. 

Forbes, only 26 himself, has spent six years working as a contractor all over the world and says he is often asked how to break into the industry. The site, at oil and gas community is still in its infancy but as well as networking aims to offer resources, document libraries and free advice. After only two weeks it had acquired 1,000 members. 

"Networking and who you know has always been the easiest route into the industry," says Forbes. "I am taking that to the next level and allowing people to network online," he says.

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