Go with the flow: oil and gas industry career guide for graduate engineers

The fossil fuel industry is entering a new era of technological challenges and it needs highly skilled engineers to help keep the lights on.

Why work in oil and gas?

The oil and gas sector offers one of the most challenging – and financially rewarding careers for engineers.

Despite the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions, we’re likely to be dependant on oil and gas for electricity, fuel and chemical production for several decades to come – if not longer. Joining the industry now offers the chance to help keep these vital resources flowing by tackling huge engineering challenges and making oil and gas leaner than ever before.

Peak oil’s passing means more work, not less

North Sea oil rigs are being redeveloped in order to extract more-difficult-to-reach reserves.

According to industry body Oil and Gas UK, around 42 billion barrels of oil have been extracted from the UK Continental Shelf since 1962 – but there are still potentially another 24 billion left. The challenge is to extract this increasingly hard to reach resource with the lowest possible costs – and that’s where skilled engineers come in, developing the techniques and technologies to help extract oil in ever-more difficult conditions.

Meanwhile, many North Sea rigs have reached the end of their life. Consultants Deloittes and Douglas-Westwood estimate the value of contracts to dismantle the aged structures could be worth £630m a year, with the majority of decommissioning activity and related spend occurring between 2017 and 2027. That’s good news for operators like Jee, who specialise in decommissioning disused pipeline. Companies such as Costain Upstream are carrying out asset integrity work, extending the life of structures which are already past their design life while also facing the challenge of strict health and safety requirements.

The UK government is supporting success

A recent government report set out the industry’s long-term horizons.

With pressure to reduce the deficit still high, the UK Government is committed to getting the most from its natural reserves. It recently adopted the recommendations of the sector’s 2014 Wood Report, which should help improve production and generate an extra £200bn for the economy over the next 20 years. As well as increasing collaboration between the government and the energy industry, through this exploration will be revitalised and investment given to prolong the life of the existing oil and gas processing infrastructure. More money will also be ploughed into developing technologies that maximise recovery of oil and gas – and that means extra jobs.

The industry’s future depends on you

BP oil graduate engineer Seb Turner
The oil and gas sector is desperate for young engineers – and offers relatively high salaries as a result.

An ageing workforce means demand for engineering graduates is strong. According to the World Petroleum Council, 40–60 per cent of petroleum engineers will retire within the next five years. Meanwhile, as reserves become harder to extract, the industry’s requirements are becoming more complex. The industry therefore needs good quality recruits to sustain it, and ultimately help protect the global supply of energy. As a result, oil and gas offers the highest graduate engineering salaries of any sector – often over £30,000 a year.

Who are the employers?

BP, Shell and Total have some of the biggest oil sector graduate training schemes in the UK.

Although large exploration and production companies such as Shell, BP and Total all offer good graduate training schemes, smaller operators are now securing a large number of North Sea licences. These include GDF Suez who supply 5% of the UK’s gas, or Talisman Sinopec Energy, owner of more oilfields in the region than anyone else. That’s not to say that larger operators are downsizing – Maersk Oil, for example, plans the opening of the Golden Eagle and Culzean fields by 2020.

Every exploration facility relies on a large number of contractors such as drilling specialists National Oilwell Varc or Weir, who provide a variety of products and services to wells as well as seaboard and downstream operations. Further down the supply chain there are many innovative technology companies such as Baker Hughes, who develop new drilling and well bore clean up technologies, and Subsea 7, creators of hovering autonomous inspection vehicles as well as pipeline and other technologies across all exploration and pumping operations. There are also specialist operators such as the BG Group, who only deal with extraction of liquefied natural gas.

Companies such as Baker Hughes develop new drilling and well bore clean up technologies.

Most oil and gas companies have offices abroad, giving graduates a chance to gain international experience. Nexen offer opportunities to work at the cutting edge of extraction through oil sands and shale gas production in Canada, as well as with conventional production in the UK – though as companies such as Cuadrilla increase their reach, shale gas production could soon be a good sized UK sector, too.

Cuadrilla's fracking operation in Lancashire
The new fracking sector could create thousands of onshore oil and gas engineering jobs in the UK.

Finally, there are also research jobs to consider. Heriot Watt University has been at the forefront of oil and gas technology development for almost four decades through its Institute of Petroleum Engineering, which develops technologies to help the industry.

Who is required?

A huge variety of engineers are needed in the oil and gas sector, from civil to electrical.

A lot of people is the short answer: mechanical, electrical, chemical, structural, petroleum, piping, corrosion, drilling, process, reservoir, production, civil and environmental engineers are all in demand, such are the diverse needs of the sector. From drilling wells to well abandonment, and energy transportation and facility maintenance in between, there are vacancies for graduate trainees across a number of firms who may specialise in a certain area or operate across the board.

Where will I be based?

BP graduate engineer Seb Turner is based in Sunbury near London but the company has offices all over the UK, from Shetland to Hull to Milton Keynes.

When it comes to the upstream sector, most UK reserves are to be found under the North Sea, so the majority of jobs are based in Scotland with Aberdeen and Edinburgh being major hubs along the country’s east coast. To the west, Centrica operates in the Irish Sea, with fields in the Blackpool region.

Within refining, a variety of locations are possible. ConocoPhillips has plants on Teeside, as well as in Theddlethorpe, Lincolnshire, while Murco Petroleum operates out of Milford Haven in Wales.

Likewise, employment connected with the industry can be situated across the UK. Hampshire-based QinetiQ produce technologies to assure the security of pipelines and critical facility assets, monitoring them for indicators of accidental damage, as well as securing the perimeters of pump stations and larger refinery facilities, while Petrofac’s subsea pipeline consulting and engineering services business is located in Woking.

If you want the inside track on engineering jobs in other industries, take a look at our full list of sector guides.

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