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The energy transition: how to bridge the skills gap

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The UK is slowly shifting towards cleaner and renewable energy: what does that mean for the skilled workforce in the oil and gas sector?

If drilling for oil during a North Sea winter is difficult, consider the difficulties in the relatively unexplored west frontiers of Scotland where seas are far deeper and the waves wilder.

While there are billions of gallons oil yet to be exploited west of Shetland, and remaining stocks in the difficult-to-reach areas of the North Sea, is future exploration justifiable amid climate change and a punishing price slump? What will happen to the UK’s extensive oilfield engineering expertise, as North Sea companies cut their workforces and slash budgets amid intense pressure to clean up?

Considered dirty and outdated, the oil and gas sector has a toxic reputation among the young, and is less enticing for young engineers – just 95 students studied petroleum engineering last year, according to latest figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

Despite the industry’s double whammy of the pandemic and tumbling prices in 2020, the UK will still need fossil fuels in the near term, but workforces urgently need to update and adapt for the future, experts say.

“There will still be demand for plastics and for oil and gas products 30 years from now,” says Andy Rodden, an energy transition expert from Aberdeen-based not-for-profit Opportunity North East. While there’s been a natural wastage from an industry that’s been around for half a century, he believes Aberdeen’s heritage and skills will help offshore wind developers make the most of new opportunities.

“The North Sea has been a fantastic centre for innovation and technology, pushing the envelope in deep-water drilling and harsh environments,” says David Clark, Aberdeen-based chief executive of Vysus Group (formerly Lloyds Register Energy).

The UK faces colossal upheaval in shifting to cleaner energy and renewables as the world tries to decarbonise. “We’ve done a terrible job in talking to the public about what we do and what it takes to achieve change,” says Clark.

Complex engineering expertise that has built up over years of oilfield exploration won’t be wasted, he believes. “Skills that exist today in oil and gas are absolutely going to be essential for creating the clean energy solutions of tomorrow. That will be in part decarbonising what we do today. For us to get anywhere close to hitting emissions targets we need to figure out carbon capture on an industrial scale. In reality that will mean sticking it back in the ground.” And that will require – in reverse – the same skills used in identifying oil and gas sites, drilling wells, putting in production systems and pipeline networks.

That’s the optimistic view. But what of the skills unique to oil and gas such as geophysical expertise and reservoir engineering? What use are they amid a shift to renewables? “Drilling and completing a well upstream is very different from constructing a windfarm,” notes Simon Tucker, head of energy, oil & gas at Infosys Consulting.

“A decline in jobs in Aberdeen in gas and oil is inevitable but not something to fear so much as to be prepared for,” says William Owen, specialist recruiter in oil and gas for BOSS Energy Consulting. Many fundamental engineering skills, he says, are transferable.

Larger companies, says Rodden, have been able to train people in broader energy skills. Meanwhile, a percentage of oil platforms in the North Sea will remain operational in the years to come.

What new skills will the sector need? Decommissioning oil rigs doesn’t offer huge opportunities today, but may yet grow in importance. “If you dig a big hole and extract oil for decades, it’s your job to fill it up and make sure there are no leaks,” says Owen.

Some offshore oil rigs are being decommissioned but there are hundreds more, and it’s a complex and costly job, and environmentalists have questioned the benefits. “The engineering muscle we have today is capable of decommissioning,” says Clark, “but the challenge for companies is making it work in the current regulatory and fiscal environment.”

Arguably more exciting are the new opportunities thrown up by innovations in energy supply. “Renewables is a very young sector,” says Rodden. “Technology is moving all the time, so it’s a challenge to know what skills it will need in a decade, for instance.”

As oil and gas companies navigate energy transition and embark upon strategic shifts, new technologies inevitably come to the fore. Wind, solar and hydro power will dominate the next decade or two. Wave and tidal are yet to be exploited commercially – “that’s at least a decade off”, says Tucker. On the horizon are energy storage, battery technology, biofuels and fuel cells.

Oil and gas infrastructure can be repurposed to act as gathering stations for wind power, says Clark. And oil and gas offers the offshore infrastructure to transport and store carbon under the sea. Early-stage projects in carbon-capture technologies are already under way from bases in Aberdeen, capital of North Sea oil, and the Humber estuary.

Progress can and will happen, says Clark; carbon capture could unlock the potential of hydrogen from fossil fuel and prevent further emissions. “There are innovations and technical solutions to create clean hydrogen. We’ve just got to go after it. We need the right regulatory and fiscal models to make it viable.”

How can the UK develop necessary skills? The energy sector needs to have started “yesterday” to retrain and recruit the required expertise, says Tucker. “But better today than in two to three years’ time.” A switch from oil and gas into renewables is not a straight fit. “There will be a skills supply crunch,” he forecasts.

Core engineering skills – mechanical, electrical, chemical – will always be in demand within the energy sector. And the UK’s experience in large complex projects, honed in the North Sea, will eventually pay dividends, Clark believes. “How we produce, transport, store and ultimately use clean energy solutions will matter – all the skills and experience of today are absolutely valid and required.”

Wind farms will always need maintaining, monitoring and upgrading. “A need for maths and physical skills won’t go away,” says Tucker. “Renewable energy will need more skills around modelling, digital, electronics and telecommunication.” A wealth of data presents new challenges for the sector, with thousands of wind platforms and millions of sensors. “It will be on a different scale.”

As major oil and gas companies adjust to a new landscape, there needs to be heavy investment in skills, and an uptake in more generic engineering courses at universities – which may also begin to offer broader energy-focused engineering degrees. Energy skills body OPITO has made its first move into renewables with the launch of a series of safety and technical training courses. But it’s early days.

“The UK clearly has enormous opportunity now,” says Clark. “We’ve got infrastructure and expertise. We have a history of innovating. We have geographical advantage over many parts of the world. If we get our act together as UK plc, we can create these new solutions and demonstrate this can work.”

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