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The Times: Life at the deep end

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Banish any thoughts you had about the North Sea oil industry being slowly run down. There’s a full career’s worth of work out there

October 18, 2007
By Steve Smethurst

“Whatever you do,” Hugh Williams says, “don’t choose a photograph of someone covered in oil on a drill platform – that’s the image we’re trying to get away from.”

Williams, chief executive of the International Marine Contractors Association (IMCA), which represents more than 400 offshore marine and underwater engineering companies worldwide, is trying to attract more people to the industry. The IMCA estimates that more than 40 floating drilling rigs will be commissioned over the next two years, creating 5,000 additional jobs.

“We’re determined to do all we can to encourage youngsters – and the not-so-young – to join this booming and exciting industry,” he says.

Booming and exciting? Banish any thoughts you had about the North Sea oil industry being slowly run down. “There’s a full career’s worth of work out there,” he says. “And there aren’t many industries that can say that.”

The industry is attractive to engineers since it employs almost every type. “The challenge and the fun for anyone joining the industry is that you will never be pigeonholed,” he says.The challenge, and to a lesser extent, the fun, were high-lighted in Real Men Under Pressure, a BBC documentary about the work of compression divers, who typically work 200 metres below the North Sea and live for 28 days in a decompression chamber. In the programme several divers said they loved the tranquillity of the seabed with only the sound of their own breathing to keep them company.

But it can be dangerous, and more than 900 North Sea divers and support staff went on strike over pay last year. After ten days, they accepted a 44.7 per cent pay increase over two years. Prior to the rise an experienced freelance diver could earn up to £45,000 a year. Derek Moore, an RMT regional organiser, said at the time “It isn’t the rough weather, freezing temperatures or the eight-hour dives that are the most gruelling aspects – it’s living in a saturation chamber… cut off from the outside world with only a small television and a porthole to look through for entertainment.”

However, only a minority of jobs are under water. More typical are those held by Walter O’Brien-Gilbert and Dave Foulger. The former is a project engineer for Subsea7, a subsea engineering and construction firm. He has an engineering degree from the University of Nigeria and says that his biggest achievement came in his graduate training scheme was on a project for Shell. “It was based in Nigeria, so I was asked to compile a report on any logistical or cultural challenges. It was great to make a contribution to the project, and even better to fly to Nigeria.”

Foulger is a design manager at Global Marine Systems, whose core business is fibre-optic submarine cables. He is unusual in that, although a recent graduate, he did his degree part-time while in his 50s. He says that his job is typically office-based, although it involves some foreign travel.

“Some people want challenge, travel, some want excitement, some want the career path. All of those things are there. It’s very safe, very environmentally friendly, very sophisticated and long-term.” and its also non-profit sister websites,,,,, and are all owned by John Donovan. There is also a Wikipedia article.

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