Member viewpoint: Securing the Energy Industry’s Talent: today, tomorrow and in the future.

Kirstie Langan – Business Development Director, PDi

When I was asked to speak at last month’s Offshore Europe about the talent pool that currently exists in our industry and how that needs to develop in the coming years and decades, I was delighted.  This subject is something I am genuinely passionate about, particularly as so much of my work over the past 20 years has been in attracting engineering talent to the energy sector, and growing and developing engineering consultancy businesses to support the industry.

I believe there are a number of challenges we face in the sector when it comes to ensuring that we have a competent workforce to take us through the decades that lie ahead.  However, these challenges also represent some brilliant opportunities for competence retention and creation.

I thought a good place to start might be thinking about what originally attracted ME to the energy business. For me, this industry is exciting, fast paced, cutting edge; we are technologically advanced, we are highly competent, we are proud of what we do and it’s thrilling, it’s pioneering stuff!  There are great opportunities for career advancement and to seek the rewards that can afford you a comfortable lifestyle.  But to be honest, for me, it’s that pioneering spirit, that camaraderie, that excitement that keeps me enthusiastic.

Through school work experience, I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to join bp’s environmental department at its Dyce head office. I can’t really overstate how powerful that experience was.  For me, there was just something absolutely intoxicating about walking through the doors at Dyce, and I remember it like it was yesterday. It was different to anything I was used to and, to be honest, I just loved the whole scene. I was shown how to operate hydrocarbon release software and learn about environmental emergency response processes.  I wasn’t given silly, boring tasks to do – I was instead provided with a showcase of the type of work that is done within a real department within a very real business.

I think it’s a valuable thing to look back and reflect on what excited us in our formative career years, what got us to where we are?  That’s so important when we look at the opportunities that we offer in our sector.

We have always had a very strong message to share locally and internationally about what it’s like to work in the energy industry and what it was like to be part of the engineering and energy community in Aberdeen, in Scotland and across the globe.

And let’s remember, originally that message came from our pride, our discoveries, our world firsts, our expertise and our achievements.  THAT is how we attracted tens of thousands of talented engineers and professionals from across the globe to our industry and our city, to work alongside and learn from our hugely talented local workforce. THAT is how we built our legacy talent pool. And whilst we seem to have lost some of that pride and excitement, and certainly much of our swagger, the opportunity is still massive.

The messages we can share today are as strong if not stronger than they’ve ever been.  Our engineering industry, across so many different energy sources, is booming in so many areas. Our decommissioning sector is the envy of the global stage. Our renewables industry is a leading light in technical communities the world over.

So when we’re looking to the future and ensuring the competence and availability of our future work force, it should be within the context of a really deep belief, understanding and passion for what we have to offer and why just like in the past, global talent should clamour to join us.  Just last week I visited a Formula One team in the Cotswolds, I was given a tour around their facility and got behind the scenes to understand how they run their operation.  I met probably close to 50 engineers within their 900 strong workforce – it was interesting to learn how many of them had purposefully moved across the world to be part of this elite group of professionals.  They know that when it comes to carbon fibre technology, aerodynamics and precision machining – this is a great place to be.  Of course they do, it’s F1!  But what we do is every bit as exciting.  You just need to adjust the lens you’re looking through to recognise this.  A few years ago, I was lucky enough to meet several engineers and astronauts from NASA who were visiting Aberdeen.  The astronaut said ‘doing what I do is easy, but those saturation divers in the north sea, that is crazy!’ – again, he was looking through a different lens.

Capturing Young Imaginations

I think we woefully underestimate the power we still have to capture the imagination of young people and career transitioners.  I would love to see us have more pride as an industry when we look to attract talent.  I would love us to continue to develop how we communicate all of the wonderful things offered by a career in energy to prospective employees, graduates, young people, old people and everyone in between who could help us keep building our talent pool.

Do you think we’re getting that message across? What could we do to make it stronger?

I recently asked an intern about the perception of not just energy, but the oil and gas industry within his peer group.  He said that honestly, anything with the word oil in it was viewed negatively within much of his circle. This confirmed my belief that there is a great deal of misinformation surrounding the energy sector and the key role that oil and gas still play in a responsible, sustainable energy mix, as we transition.

So how can we address this misconception? I’d suggest that internships are a very good place to start.

I want to encourage you all, if you’re not already doing so, to look into how your business can benefit from our incredible local academic institutions and the opportunities that exist for talented people undertaking study at our local universities to spend a period of time within your organisations.  These programmes allow students to contribute in a really meaningful way to industry, as well as gaining their own experiences.

The year an intern spends with you has the potential to be rich in value and experience for both the organisation and the intern – but it needs a bit of thought and commitment.  What do you want your intern to take away from their time with you, carry with them and share with their own network in the future?

Untapped Resources

And it’s not just about future talent. I believe we have an amazing, potentially untapped pool of resource already existing in our organisations. I recently spoke to someone who told me that despite enjoying her work, she felt “invisible” in her role.

When I asked her what did she really mean by this, she explained to me that being 20 years into her career and having returned to work full-time now her kids were at school, she somehow seems to have fallen into this strange unspoken category of workplace invisibility. Opportunities, training, site visits and all sorts of interesting career enhancing and career enabling experiences were not offered to her. Despite being more motivated than ever to fast track her career and fulfil her potential, she was regularly being passed over; seemingly not even on the radar.  She quoted multiple instances where less qualified, and in her opinion less deserving, members of the workforce would be offered these opportunities, instead of her or her invisible colleagues. The perception is that younger colleagues, earlier in their careers, are seen as better candidates for career enhancement as they have higher potential.

If we have people – talented, skilled, ambitious people – who want to get on in the workplace, yet who feel invisible, then this is something we need to have a think about.

And this is where another great opportunity exists. I want us all to really look around our organisations. Consider those that you would deem to be in the middle of the organisation, in the middle of their careers maybe. Are these people being given the opportunities they deserve to move up the organisation and/or progress in their careers. I appreciate that not everybody needs or wants to constantly progress higher and higher, but my point is…. can we all commit to making sure that nobody in our workforce ever feels invisible. That could have a seismic impact on our workforce.

Age and Experience

Another group I want is to have a real think about is over 50s.

Now, generally we try not to speak about ages in numbers but let’s just get down to brass tacks. Retirement age is pushing out further and further, so again, I want you to look around your organisation and consider the people that in the ‘old world’ you might be thinking of as nearing retirement age. These people are no longer nearing retirement age and potentially have many years, or perhaps decades of valuable work ahead of them.

Are you truly assessing their abilities and career aspirations, training needs and development gaps in the same way you do everybody else?  If you don’t, which I think if we’re honest many of us don’t, please reflect on this and consider how you can do better.  The old, truly insulting adage, that you ‘can’t teach old dogs new tricks’ has no place in this – or any – sector, and is perpetuating a career-limiting mindset and one which potentially denies our industry of so much talent.

Assessing Talent and Suitability

Let’s talk about how we assess people to come into – and their progression through – our organisations.  In other words, how to we assess talent and suitability for job roles? We interview, right?

But take a step back. When you consider the roles that you are recruiting for currently in your organisation, when the person is in the seat, doing the job and everybody’s happy…. what does that look like? And what are you doing in an interview that reflects what that looks like?

Think about how we interview technical specialists, how we interview engineers, designers and technicians. In my opinion, particularly in these technical roles, generally our interview processes are entirely unfit for purpose.

Why do we continue to ask a draftsperson to talk us through his or her CV start to finish as the primary, and often sole, way of assessing suitability? Is the ability to TALK about design what we need to assess, really? Or do we need to assess their ability to interpret drawings, to drive software and organise their work? How can we come up with assessment processes where we’re giving people a genuine chance to demonstrate what makes them special?

Let me share an example with you from a long time ago. I was working in a recruitment agency and I had a candidate who was a design draftsman.  I was told he was absolutely fantastic with Autodesk Inventor and had a lot of really good experience, but he found communicating with others very difficult.  He had significant issues with social anxiety and very low confidence.  He also found that dressing in any sort of business attire raised his anxiety levels further – it wasn’t any sort of ego related issue with getting into a collar and tie, he simply felt wildly uncomfortable in office wear.  So, his challenges with communication and presenting himself in a way that suited the office environment led to his current employer moving him into a role, alone in stores.  In sum, this man with a wealth of specialist skills and a lovely demeanour and personality found himself alone, using none of his specialist skills and trying to teach himself to do a job he didn’t really understand and wasn’t interested in.

Needless to say, he didn’t interview well on a number of occasions, but I KNEW his talents were outstanding, and so I put on my thinking cap and explained to the next client that I had a candidate who was vastly talented but wouldn’t interview well and would appear in an Iron Maiden t-shirt and jeans! I asked him to think outside the box and provide a practical, software-based “interview” during which my candidate produced a brilliant piece of work and felt confident enough after that hour to discuss what he’d done and the thought process behind it.  My client hired him on the spot.  He became a key member of the team and to my knowledge is still there today, adding value, being himself and helping that organisation to move forward.

We have an incredible community of professionals in the energy sector, and I am so proud of this group of people that we call our colleagues and that we call our industry.  I’m proud of what we all get up and do every day and the contribution that we all make to (literally!) keeping the lights on across our country and beyond.

We need to ensure we have the workforce to continue this, so please, just have a think about how we enable people to be their best, most talented, selves within our organisations.

The potential is huge.