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The Sunday Times: A world of opportunity: The expanding oil and gas industries have gone global in the 21st century

June 17, 2007
Wendy Sloane

Time was when almost any fresh-faced oil or gas engineer could find a lucrative job straight out of university, working in the oilfields around Dubai or Kuala Lumpur. Now competition for the best jobs is increasingly stiff and industry experience is the most highly prized commodity. But as a skills shortage in the energy industry becomes more acute, qualified people still travel the world.

“The days of the cushy expat number in areas such as Singapore, America or Kuala Lumpur are numbered,” says James Beazley, director of specialist oil, gas and energy for the Six Recruitment consultancy, based in Cheshire. “If you want to go abroad, usually that means new-frontier locations such as Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Angola.”

The global energy business has shifted from the developed world to include less-developed regions. As a result, the competition for people with the right skills is increasing in countries outside the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

While industry leaders want the best people for the job, they are also recognising the need to attract, train and keep local talent. These days, hiring a specific percentage of staff locally is often part of the contract. BP, which does 60% of its current business in OECD countries but predicts that will drop to 20% within a decade, believes a global company should have leaders reflecting the community in which it operates as a “business imperative as well as a social responsibility”.

“Multinationals will have localisation targets they must meet as part of their contracts in developing countries, which means there will be fewer opportunities for foreigners to come in,” says Beazley. “You’ll have opportunities in the initial period of new projects, which may last three to five years, and after that you’ll see a drastic decrease in the number of expats there as locals come to take over their roles. But there will still be opportunities out there.”

What type of skills are employers looking for at home and abroad? Anybody degree-qualified in engineering or a related technical discipline will score well with the recruiters. Candidates with sub-surface disciplines – geologists, petroleum and well engineers – as well as mechanical and project engineers are especially in demand.

“Technical and engineering skills travel very well, and they always will,” says Martin Grant, managing director of the oil and gas division at engineering consultancy Atkins. “Once an individual of that type has a few years’ experience, they can move around the globe.” Going green doesn’t mean putting a kibosh on international travel. In fact, environmentally-conscious engineers are finding more opportunities than ever before.

“Where you go would depend on the type of role you’re taking: environmental impact assessments, feasibility studies for renewable technologies, people looking to build in Dubai using solar panels,” says James Owen, senior consultant for sustainability at Cyril Sweett, the global construction consultant.

Engineers who are skilled from a renewables perspective are in demand, he says, as well as those with degrees in environmental decision-making or policy. “There is stacks of work in the Middle East. And loads in the Far East, northern Europe, Scandinavia and the western United States – California, for example, thanks to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s green footprint. There is a lot of stuff going on in China and the Far East that requires renewable technology know-how, which we Brits are supplying.”

David McSherry, director at BMT Renewables, a design, engineering and risk management consultancy, says his team is working hard to support business development in China. “The Chinese want to get knowledge transfers, specialist skills supplied from knowledge bases in the UK or Europe,” he says. “They will take anything and develop it as they have so many high-quality engineering graduates of their own.”

Many of the big manufacturers of wind turbines, for example, are establishing manufacturing capabilities in China – and India – to get a share of the market, McSherry says. “By and large they are populated by Chinese technicians with senior management roles, who are learning from expats. Eventually they won’t need the expats anymore.”

“The energy industry is going through a period of rapid change, especially with the development of Brazil, Russia, India and China,” says Nimai Swaroop, head of recruitment marketing for Europe and Africa at Shell. “The last two in particular are accounting for an increasing demand for oil production. They alone will be responsible for 45% of the increase of oil use by 2015.

“There is a lot more global mobility of talent right across the energy sector. But as the number of students studying technical disciplines has declined, the demand for technical energy skills has increased.”

Shell recruits worldwide. Like BP, it has an “action plan” to ensure more locals take on leadership positions. Last year Shell hired 3,000 technical professionals from more than 70 countries, compared with 1,000 professionals in 2004, Swaroop says. A quarter of the graduates hired came from outside the country in which they were working. “Some countries are hot spots for a particular talent,” he says.

“It’s a fairly wide net we have got out there,” Swaroop explains. “Increasingly, engineers and other professionals in the sector are mobile, and we are following that trend. Candidates are like consumers – they have choice, and the top talent often has more than one offer.” The plethora of exciting job opportunities abroad could, however, have an impact on the energy industry in Britain.

Only a small number of engineers have the skills to build power stations, for example, which is a “genuine worry for the economy and could even eventually lead to blackouts”, according to Tobias Read, chief executive of EPCglobal, an engineering staffing company.

“There are some skills around but to a large degree these people have many other opportunities,” Read says. “There are very attractive jobs for them outside the UK. They can go to Abu Dhabi and work tax-free with a 50% salary increase.”

Baby-boomers coming to retirement age are creating vacancies – though not necessarily simply through leaving the job market. “The high oil price has given the kick for senior people looking to retire not to do that but to set up their own companies instead. They are going to have a lot of projects coming up around the world themselves,” says Beazley.

He still believes, however, that the numbers of experienced people coming up for retirement, encouraged by their healthy final salary pensions, could soon create a greater recruitment crisis.

“Five years from now there will be an even shorter supply of technical candidates, and we’ll be relying on India, China and other developing countries that hold the bulk of engineers at that age group the rest of the world needs,” he says.

Distance no object

After 11 years in Hampshire, Tim Pugh, technical director at the consultancy RPS Energy, is preparing to emigrate for a second time. In September he and his family are moving to Perth, Australia, 23 years after he headed to South Africa to work as a geophysicist.

Pugh worked in Cape Town and Johannesburg and also Namibia before being made redundant in 1991 and joining a consultancy in Twickenham, working on the Channel tunnel and Sellafield. He left in 1995 to join a company that was taken over by RPS.

“The nature of the business means you are dealing with a wide variety of skills, all of which contribute to your projects,” says Pugh, 46. “This can include environmentalists, archaeologists, accountants and lawyers. You never know what will be required when that phone rings.

“The multi-faceted nature of my job is what I value most. RPS has given me an opportunity in mid-career to move to a new challenge. This means a complete lifestyle change for me and my family but also the opportunity to transfer in-house knowledge to outlying regional offices and provide a different approach to our antipodean clients.”

Time for a challenge

When Rikard Scoufias was offered a job in Angola two years ago, he jumped at the chance even though the long-running civil war there had finished just a few years before. “It’s a fascinating country,” says the senior external affairs adviser for BP Angola. “While conditions are challenging, there is an optimism among the people that is palpable.”

Scoufias, 36, divides his time between London and Luanda. He is a lawyer by training who has worked for BP for almost a decade. “One of our projects is a local energy company, which in the long term would be primarily staffed by our Angolan colleagues,” he says. “We have close to 700 staff, about 40% Angolan. We are doing work to hire more staff, from Angola predominantly.”

Scoufias lives in housing that was carefully vetted, has special transport and has had personal safety training. His girlfriend has chosen to stay in London. “It’s a safe country as long as you keep your wits about you,” he says. “The only downside is in terms of family life.”

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