Transition and upskill: is the offshore industry well placed to do both?

Andrew Tunnicliffe 7 January 2021 (Last Updated December 30th, 2020 17:56)

As the renewable energy sector continues to expand, education and training, together with upskilling and reskilling, will only become more important according to OPITO CEO John McDonald. We hear about the steps the company is taking to develop the offshore workforce of the future and what that future might look like.

Transition and upskill: is the offshore industry well placed to do both?
PwC’s 22nd Annual Global CEO Survey revealed that more than three in four CEOs from the energy and resources sectors said the availability of digital skills was among their list of concerns. Source: John McDonald OPITO chief executive officer.

The global energy industry has been going through significant change in recent years, largely the result of a deepening climate emergency and the push by governments and industry to address the dangers a warming world will present. For the energy sector, this has meant efforts to support the so-called energy transition – moving away from traditional yet damaging fossil fuels to more sustainable power generation – have been stepped up.

It is clear that in the years and decades to come, energy production and supply will evolve dramatically. The question is, however, while the technologies are fast becoming commonplace, does the global workforce have the right skills, and what skills will ultimately be needed? 

That is something that has long concerned CEOs and their businesses. Back in 2018, PwC’s 22nd Annual Global CEO Survey revealed that more than three in four CEOs, 76% of respondents, from the energy, utilities, and resources sectors said the availability of skills, particularly digital, was among their list of concerns going forward. It said that the lack of upskilling programmes and a reluctance to recruit from outside of the sector were holding back individual businesses and the energy transition. PwC added that although the issue was of concern, businesses weren’t doing enough to address them.

Preparing for the energy transition

Whether that’s fair to say today is unclear, but one thing is for sure: there is a growing desire among those working within the sector to future-proof their own careers. In September 2020, campaign groups Friends of the Earth Scotland, Greenpeace UK, and Platform said four in five (81%) UK-based employees working in fossil fuels wanted to transition from the sector into renewables. The group added that although many skills were transferable, few companies were tapping into already available knowledge. 

“It’s no secret that renewables are set to play an increasingly prominent role in transforming the global energy landscape, with the need for new and different skills as part of a more integrated energy future,” says OPITO CEO John McDonald. 

The not-for-profit organisation is the global skills body for the energy sector, operating across the UK and Europe, Middle East and Africa, Asia Pacific, and the Americas, in about 50 countries. It recently announced what it called a “strategic shift” into the renewable energy market, with the launch of a new suite of standards and qualifications that it says will address the skills requirements of a net zero economy.

“Climate change is one of the most important challenges we face today, with a highly skilled, sustainable talent pipeline integral to our ability to deliver the solutions needed to achieve a low carbon economy,” says McDonald. 

The provider says it is training more than 375,000 people a year globally, but that it has expanded its portfolio with the introduction of a series of new products that include standards associated with scoping and development, construction, operations and maintenance activities, basic offshore safety and emergency response, crisis management, and helicopter operations.

McDonald says the move is an important first step in enabling workers to move with greater flexibility across the energy sector, particularly for those with existing oil and gas qualifications. The aim is to help ensure the availability of a multi-disciplined and highly skilled energy workforce for the future, OPITO says. 

“Individuals starting out in their careers have also been catered for, with SCQF-accredited training qualifications – including an introduction to mechanical and electrical engineering and renewable energy foundation training,” McDonald adds. The courses are equivalent to learners at apprentice level looking to achieve SQA Level 3 certification. 

Change starts at the top

It is estimated that by 2050 – the ballpark time countries around the world hope to have achieved net-zero carbon status, or at the very least to have significantly reduced their emissions – the number of additional jobs created in the sector will be one million. In 2019 it employed at least 11.5 million, directly and indirectly, according to OPITO. 

PwC believes the journey begins at the top of today’s leading energy businesses. In a commentary on the issues, it said: “This revolution should start at the top, with leadership embracing innovation and more agile ways of working than they may be used to… Upskilling is more than just retraining workers. It’s about organisations creating opportunities for their workforce to gain knowledge, learn new tools, and put the learning into practice so they’re empowered to deliver differently.”

“There are benefits in bringing the different parts of the energy sector together for both the employer and the employee,” McDonald continues. He says that the need for better harmonisation in terms of training and skills development across the energy sector will become even more important as the energy system further integrates. 

However, there is already a wealth of knowledge and expertise within oil and gas, as alluded to by the group behind the survey on the intentions of its workforce to migrate. 

It is a view shared by McDonald, who says: “Many of the current skills in the oil and gas industry are readily transferable across the energy sector, with the knowledge and experience developed within this industry lending itself well to highly skilled, low-carbon jobs.”

He says that expertise lies in asset management, engineering, project management, mechanical engineering, fabrication, test and assembly, servicing and maintenance, and health and safety. The sector can also pull from supporting professions such as legal and commercial, finance, human resources, and marketing and communications.

A further boost in the push to upskill today’s workforce is that many oil and gas companies are in the midst of diversifying their core businesses, which will lead to further demand for a multi-disciplined workforce. Additionally, the roles available today within the renewables sector are no longer limited to small-scale businesses and startups, McDonald opines. 

“The experience and capabilities of those working in oil and gas are vital to achieving a low-carbon economy – whether that be their proven ability to lead teams, solve problems, optimise operations, or manage and improve safety parameters,” he adds. “Regardless of whether we are speaking about an oil platform or a wind turbine, there are a great many commonalities in terms of the tasks, processes, and protocols involved.”

UK – leading or lagging behind?

Despite the good work being done by the industry and organisations like OPITO, some believe there is more to do to secure the futures of what will arguably be, in years to come, former oil and gas workers as the transition gathers pace. Lead campaigner in the UK for Platform, Gabrielle Jeliazkov, said that such workers have been hit with fears over job insecurity amid volatile oil markets, lax regulation, and now the global pandemic.

She called on the UK Government to listen to workers’ views and put them at the centre of the country’s energy transition. “The government must ensure oil and gas workers are supported into secure and sustainable jobs,” she added.

McDonald, however, feels the UK Government is already taking some positive steps to support the transition. These include the £25m National Transition Training Fund and the Green Jobs Taskforce, complemented by UK and Scottish government representation on the Energy Skills Alliance. 

Speaking of the role his organisation is playing, he added: “OPITO is hard at work to deliver the training and skills development needed to support the world’s net-zero ambitions. We are already making progress towards developing the highly flexible and capable workforce needed to deliver an integrated, net-zero energy system.”

He adds that innovation and the energy transition is likely to reshape, to some extent, the oil and gas sector. His core message is to do the groundwork now and not delay: “It’s important that we are prepared for such an eventuality, with programmes that reflect the changing dynamics and that will ensure our continued ability to upskill and reskill the current workforce, as required.”