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Lloyds List: Diving into the skills gap

Published: Jun 19, 2007

WANTED: thousands upon thousands of marine professionals. Great jobs are on offer ‘I would not swap this job for any other: I feel as though I am on a trip to the moon,’ enthuses Roberta Della Verita, one of the few professional female divers in the industry.

Even so, a massive skills shortage spans the world, and industry is having to roll up its sleeves and sharpen its recruiting. IMCA, the International Marine Contractors Association, with 365 member companies in 47 countries, is juggling with this ‘hot potato’ for all the oil patches, not just the North Sea.

It is spurring action far and wide, and publicising, as it did during the massive recent OTC exhibition in Houston, and spreading the word about the steps it is taking to address the supply of personnel.

Nor is it merely master mariners and chief engineers who are in demand, but all marine construction crew, and support teams in the offices as well as people afloat. Drilling companies, and oil companies from upstream to downstream are all in the chorus.

Within the contracting and oil industry, the average age is 50 to 52, and the bell curve is leaning to the right. On average, companies need to recruit 10% more staff this year, ‘and that is just to stand still, because 10% will retire’, says IMCA chief executive Hugh Williams.

Activities of association members relate to anything fixed at sea, including pipelines and cables, usually in support of the offshore oil and gas industry, and offshore survey and dynamic positioning (DP), which includes dredgers. In recent years, offshore renewables has added to the list.

Mr Williams led the association’s greatest presence yet at the energy event. From booth number S14, he lobbied visitors and greeted with special enthusiasm the arrival of around 100 school and college teachers to the event. Mr Williams says: ‘We understand that the OTC organisers had over 300 applications to attend the ‘OTC Teacher Institute.’

He is at the forefront of efforts to deal with what he calls the potentially damaging situation for the industry of lack of qualified personnel. Advocacy has included the updating of careers material, and the vigorous promotion of the multifaceted profession to the young and the many people looking for a change of career direction.

At the start of the year IMCA publicised its members’ practical estimates of growth in their specialities. If talking in terms of many thousands of vacancies sounds an exaggeration, one only has to study those plans.

The industry will commission at least 50 new offshore construction vessels in the next two to three years including lifting, pipelay, diving, survey and remotely operated vehicle operations. The drilling side will commission about 40 semi-submersibles in the next three years. Some 600 new support vessels including supply, anchor handlers and tugs, will come on stream in the next three to four years. Around 100 new remotely operated vehicles will be built, most of them Work Class, and 10 or so new portable or modular saturation diving systems will come onto the market.

‘The new vessels and drill rigs will require some 2,000 additional watch keepers across the bridge, DP and engine room. The increases in saturation diving will require some 800 additional personnel. They will require around 1,000 additional survey and inspection discipline personnel. The remotely operated vehicle spreads will require some 1,200 additional people to operate them.’

These numbers do not include the large numbers of additional air diving personnel and the many other deck, catering and ancillary crew, or onshore and engineering support personnel required to operate the vessels. Nor do they include the crewing and support of the 600 supply vessels.

People were lost to the industry during the lean years in energy, with some of the majors shedding thousands of professionals and training becoming a dirty word in some countries. Nor are conditions always ideal Ms De La Verita hesitates to recommend friends to follow in her steps in diving beneath the waves until the industry tightens its procedures.

Now business wants to lure back those who left, and it is looking to former members of the armed forces and defence industries, and to countries including Poland, which is short on oil and gas knowledge but strong on the maritime heritage. Workers from motor manufacturing and other factories scheduled to close are among the possibles: ‘We cannot afford to wait for the marine schools and colleges,’ says Mr Williams.

Much of the marine construction workforce is already from the Far East ‘and we need more’. Mr Williams compares employment in his members’ trades to that on traditional shipping: ‘There is no need to work on a trading ship with long spells away from home: they can work on a marine construction vessel, with six weeks on, six weeks off, and it could be a lot more fun and a lot more family friendly.’

Mr Williams admits that some countries ‘have been remiss in the approach to encouraging maths and physics at school’. From Booth S14 at Houston, Mr Williams and his team met all the IMCA member companies exhibiting there and urged them to have career packs at the ready.

‘We are eager to get across the very definite attractions of a career in our industry. It is one in which people are encouraged to work their way up their chosen career path, and when the time comes to leave, they take with them invaluable transferable skills.’

IMCA has been reviewing and updating its long-running ‘I want to be’ series of careers leaflets: I want to be a diver, I want to be a life support technician, dynamic positioning operator, offshore surveyor etc.

The association is developing a new set of case studies combining biographical descriptions of what each job entails with details on the individuals’ own careers, the work opportunities, the range of projects they have worked on and other highlights such as travel and global experience. A glossy brochure will be out soon detailing the vast array of ‘exciting’ careers available offshore, aimed at those at school, college and university.

The association’s membership has grown rapidly, with 60 new members (many of them supply vessel companies) in 2006 and 50 in 2005, and London marine insurance and maritime law firms take a keen interest in the work to improve safety and efficiency in marine contracting. The expansion is not so much the result of new companies being formed, but reflects greater recognition of the association.

It is all very well attracting new employees, but will that create a safety issue? ‘Yes,’ says Mr Williams bluntly. Work goes on building on industry standards to suit the needs of members and clients. IMCA maintains 200 guideline documents relating to international good practice, mostly about diving and dynamic positioning. A short while ago, for instance, the IMCA remote systems & ROV division management committee and the contracts workgroup of the association, in consultation with Stronachs Solicitors of Aberdeen, released the publication Contract for the Provision of ROV, Support Vessel and Associated Work.

Explaining the background to this guidance, Mr Williams says: ‘Many contractors provide services from a vessel which they do not own but have hired from the market.

‘The terms of hire are often the BIMCO Supplytime 89 uniform time charter party for offshore services vessels. The newly drawn up contract document enables contractors to pass on these vessel terms to their client and add in the terms for ROV, or associated, services.’

Sometimes, the association issues ‘safety flashes’.

‘A screw failed in someone’s diving helmet, which filled with water. Fortunately, the diver was unharmed, but we drafted a safety flash, helped with a recall of masks, and the manufacturer had them all checked and fixed,’ says Mr Williams.

Other publications aimed at raising awareness include the IMCA contracting principles; guidelines on identifying and assessing risk in construction contracts; terms and conditions for survey support services; and terms and conditions for ROV support services. It is stressed that these are guidelines as opposed to standards, which are laid down by governments, classification societies and others.

The association has been praised for its work on the risk and reward balance on large-scale construction projects. For contractors working in the major offshore oil and gas basins, the legacy of the last downturn is still being felt, although cushioned by the upswing to $60 per barrel oil. Such was the commercial fall-out from contractual models put in place as crude tumbled towards $10 in the late 1990s that the association took it upon itself, as the price swung upward, to publish its own-brand contracting principles in 2005.

IMCA was created in 1995 from the merger of two trade associations, one for diving contractors and the other for dynamically positioned vessel operators.

Its current agenda includes striving for enhanced contacts with the insurance world. ‘The insurance record of contractors has improved. We are not at a point where everybody is complying with international good practice, and IMCA still has a very important role in encouraging the spread of that around the world,’ says the association’s chief.

This is being done through engaging in more dialogue on the basis of the industry being self-regulating. ‘Self-regulation has to be a strong enough framework to satisfy governments, oil companies and contractors. The association has enabled contractors to strengthen their voice in dealing with BP, Shell, Total, Exxon and others.’

The association has observer status at IMO, which enables it to remind delegates not to forget marine construction.

Some 90% of business at IMO concerns trading ships, but marine construction has important differences, so the association may have to lobby for changes in wording to take account of this.

‘IMO has been very good to us,’ says Mr Williams. ‘We helped draft one of the IMO documents about dynamic positioning and our guideline IMCA M117, The Training and Experience of Key DP Personnel, has been referenced as an industry standard by IMO it is unusual for a trade association to be quoted in this way.’

Looking ahead: ‘I still feel that there is more scope for dialogue between the oil companies and contractors on what the future workload will be. The oil companies did not forecast this particular boom. The contractors have reacted slightly late, and are now building hundreds of vessels.’

Mr Williams insists: ‘We are a very sophisticated industry. We have high standards, but we can never afford to relax.’

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1 Comment on “Lloyds List: Diving into the skills gap”

  1. #1 steven
    on Oct 11th, 2007 at 05:23

    hi im looking for an offshore part one air diving job anywhere in the world and am will to start today. please if possible could you send me an e mail address i could send my cv to many thanks steve
    [email protected]

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