Offshore industry in skills crisis

More than enough engineering jobs to go round but little official backing to encourage newcomers into profession

An acute shortage of engineers in key disciplines could jeopardise the UK offshore supply industry’s plan to secure an export market worth £3.5bn by 2000, a senior contracting figure has warned.

Syd Fudge, chairman of the Offshore Contractors’ Association, said that the expanding skills shortage would prevent the industry achieving its target of 5% of the global offshore supply market by the turn of the century unless it was addressed quickly.

In the short term, Fudge said OCA members were trying to attract process and chemical engineers from other sectors of industry.

This initiative has been under way for nine months, but it seems unlikely that it will be able to make up the shortfall.

Iain Bell, the OCA’s chief executive, said, for example, that there were not enough suitably trained people available to fill the 15 or 20 vacancies for process engineers. ‘We’ll be lucky if we get five or six,’ he said.

To redress the imbalance in the longer term, Bell said his members were seeking to recruit more engineering graduates.

Fudge said another key to achieving the export goal would be to improve the international competitiveness of the UK industry by extending the achievements of the cost-saving Crine initiative to small and medium-sized companies in the sector.

‘By tapping into the supply chain, we’ll take the next step in improving the industry’s performance,’ he said.

Some small suppliers have expressed scepticism about the Crine process. They claim that while oil companies and large contractors have gained from the risk/reward sharing of alliance contracts and other changes in working practices, at their level the initiative has translated simply into yet further pressure to cut costs.

A third threat to the export goal would be changes to the North Sea tax regime that made it more attractive for oil companies to invest elsewhere, said Fudge, who urged the chancellor, Gordon Brown, ‘not to disturb the competitive structure of our industry’ in the current review of the issue.