Fertile fields

Jobs are plentiful in the oil and gas industry and increasingly engineers can take their pick of employers who are competing to recruit and retain staff. Julia Pierce reports

The UK oil and gas industry has contributed £25bn to the country’s economy in the last 25 years. While extraction of reserves is becoming harder as supplies from larger, more established fields run out, a combination of high oil prices and rapidly growing global demand means the sector is thriving. This has created substantial demand for staff across the board.

‘In the last three to four years the health of the oil and gas sector has been unprecedented,’ said Peter Theakston, resourcing manager at Foster Wheeler. ‘There is plenty of work until 2010 in the UK, and there are new projects coming on line over the next two quarters which will take it beyond this.

‘Growth is being driven by high demand from emerging economies as well as high oil prices. The extra money generated is being invested in new infrastructure. There are four new refineries coming up for completion — before now, none had been built for a long time. It is definitely an unprecedented period.’

This is all good news for those seeking employment. ‘It has been a candidate-led market for some time, but this is now more acute,’ said David Allan, business manager, energy sector for recruitment specialist Munro Consulting. ‘When oil prices are high companies and people do well and bonuses are high. People are therefore keen to stay in their jobs to earn these bonuses.’

But in some cases, the challenges organisations face in recruiting key staff is having a negative impact on their ability to grow and take advantage of business development opportunities. To combat this, significant benefit can be gained from seeking advice and representation to ensure employers are given the best possible chance of securing, retaining and developing the right staff for the job.

‘There is no doubt that salaries are rising,’ claimed Allan. ‘Companies are also having to be more creative with how they present themselves — it is no longer enough to offer attractive pay conditions. Companies need to show individuals what they can personally gain, such as a structured career path, international opportunities, an improved work-life balance or flexible working such as a nine-day fortnight.

‘We are increasingly seeing “joining bonuses” paid out as an additional incentive and leading companies have recognised the importance of implementing a robust retention strategy across the organisation.’

The rate of expansion is such that some companies are even setting up entire new divisions. After identifying a gap in the market, Foster Wheeler is now setting up a new team to exploit this. To staff the team, the company is looking for employees, from process engineering to structural engineers and conceptual engineers and planners. ‘We are consciously growing our group,’ said Malcolm Harrison, divisional director of the oil and gas division at Foster Wheeler.

‘We are looking to hire between 100 and 150 people with the skills to work in a front-end consultancy. These people will range from graduates to those with 30 years’ experience. Within the group, they will have the opportunity to build something — there is a real entrepreneurial feel, but with the benefits of working in a large company as well.’

Though all of those hired will initially be based at the company’s Reading office, in due course there will be opportunities to work at the offices of Foster Wheeler and their clients across the world.

‘Mechanical engineers can be hard to find, along with project engineers, project managers and some elements of piping engineers and piping materials specialists,’ said Foster Wheeler’s Theakston. ‘The company offers good career development opportunities as well as good working conditions.’

Meanwhile, other firms are going through a stage of general growth. Both globally and in the UK, Fluor is looking for engineers across all the main engineering disciplines including process, mechanical, piping, civil, electrical and control systems.

‘We are currently seeing long-standing industry shortages in specialist areas such as piping layout, materials engineering and stress engineering,’ said Ian Brennen, general manager of engineering at Fluor. ‘We are investing heavily in training to meet these requirements and also to allow us to recruit from a broader range of related industries.’

Brennen claimed that a combination of global economic growth in all areas of the company’s business and an ageing workforce are driving demand for fresh employees. ‘Over the last several years, Fluor has been experiencing significant growth globally and in the UK. We now have backlog at a historical record high. This is coupled with many people who entered engineering in the 1970s and early 1980s approaching retirement age,’ he said.

‘Our recruitment needs are to meet this increased backlog not only in numbers but also in terms of the skill sets required in the diversified range of industries in which we are now operating.’

Elsewhere, KBR is recruiting engineers in all disciplines for their energy and chemicals division. ‘We would expect candidates to have experience in the oil and gas industry, and to specialise in the main engineering disciplines including process, mechanical, electrical, instrumentation, civil, structural, piping and project engineering as well as marine, subsea and pipelines,’ said Suzy Bidgood, head of talent management at the company.

‘In addition to technical excellence, we look for a range of transferable skills that may, for example, identify an individual as a good team player or as a potential leader of KBR.’

The company has recently won a number of strategic new projects but is also recruiting to ensure it meets the demands for future work.

‘While we continue to value the services of contractors as part of our workforce, we are putting greater drive into recruiting staff back into KBR,’ Bidgood said.

Contract workers are doing well out of the buoyant market but for those looking for permanent staff, the boom is causing problems.

‘We have seen process engineers who were earning £450 to £500 a day 18 months ago push their rates up to £600 — £700 a day,’ said Allan.

‘A lot of talented engineers are turning to day-rate contracting as they cannot get that sort of money in a permanent position. And this is not just the case for younger staff in their twenties.’

According to Allan, demand is now so strong that headhunting is spreading down into the realm of less senior staff, especially when a specialist skill-set is being sought. ‘There is fierce competition for good engineers,’ he said.

‘Companies need to implement clever recruitment strategies and underpin these with clever retention strategies — and embrace the idea that very specialist recruiters can add significant value.’

What is certain is that for those seeking work or looking to move from their present position, there is a wealth of opportunities on offer. Furthermore, these conditions look set to continue.

‘Engineering career opportunities in the UK oil and gas contracting market are brighter than at any time in the recent past and are likely to remain so for several years,’ said Fluor’s Brennen.

‘Most of the projects being won now will take three to six years to complete — (we)… believe that the diversified nature of our business will support this growth even if or when we see a downturn in oil and gas projects.’