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North Sea 2: A common front for jobs and skills

The North Sea’s future relies on having the jobs and skills required to deliver change. There is an opportunity to be seized, in distributing skills to existing workers and delivering jobs to new entrants. All too often, though, a lack of shared vision has hampered the development of a consistent plan for the future.

  1. A consistent plan: This would demonstrate, to government and those outside the industry, what is needed and what the opportunities are
  2. Signposts: Existing workers need to be able to see a future in the North Sea. Some skills will be transferrable, while some will need reskilling, but direction will be essential
  3. New entrants: Energy transition jobs may attract new workers that “traditional” oil and gas prospects cannot
  4. Community focus: Local jobs will help deliver local support for projects that may otherwise simply seem intrusive and disruptive. Jobs must be meaningful, but industry must also acknowledge the limits to what we can do in the UK and what we cannot

Underscoring nearly all the discussion in the “think pod” at the E-FWD event was a need for a plan. There is clearly scope for a consistent and aligned plan from those in the sector, even while finding agreement was sometimes a challenge.

Different companies – and people – have their own takes on how well the energy sector has tackled the question of jobs and skills, which at times hinders progress.

Moving over

A move away from trying to find a single, perfect answer and towards a plan that was “good enough” for the time being is much needed. Indeed, while the problem feels like an energy sector specific problem, the challenge is actually one for the country as a whole.

X-Academy, in a study released in December 2023, suggested there were currently 335,000 jobs in the energy sector. Based on their analysis, this could increase to 408,000 by 2030. However, it also suggested the industry would lose around 80,000 jobs in oil and gas, nuclear, coal and decommissioning.

There is a need to retain these experienced workers in our oil and gas industry. In addition, there must be a route for oil and gas workers to transition seamlessly to the renewables sector and develop those new skills that are needed for renewable energy in the next generation of workers.

Within the report, X-Academy recommends eight steps to enable the acceleration of these new energy jobs. This includes the creation of more visible jobs now, showcasing the sector as an attractive and diverse place to work, and amplifying regional contexts with life-long careers.

Making a plan

Communication of the fundamental importance of the sector, in its various different iterations, would provide a way forward for planners.

There is always a tendency to call for government action. We have seen a strong focus from government on how we create the skills we need to deliver renewable energy projects, and this is important work.

The recent report of the independent review of Scotland’s skills delivery landscape, written by James Withers, is a welcome step forward. Skills bodies must understand the skills needed in the workforce, the gaps that currently exist and need to be filled while also targeting the development of the skills that will help cement Scotland’s place as a global green energy leader.

We must progress these reforms at pace and the private sector has a role to play in working with public bodies to identify skills needs.

Industry can – and must – shoulder some amount of responsibility in working out what it wants, in order to be able to ask most effectively.

Workers aboard the crew transfer vessel MCS Swath 1, on their way out to work at Hywind Scotland Photo: Ole Jørgen Bratland / Equinor
Workers aboard the crew transfer vessel MCS Swath 1, on their way out to work at Hywind Scotland Photo: Ole Jørgen Bratland / Equinor

Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero Claire Coutinho spoke recently about steps the government was taking for energy security and remarked that most people’s only point of contact with the energy industry was paying a bill. This represents a mountain to climb, but there is also an opportunity, in that people can take more ownership of the industry and come to understand more about how the sector works through greater exposure.

Debate

The invasion of Ukraine in 2022 put energy security in the spotlight. The threat of losing access to oil and gas left consumers at home feeling anxious. The topic dominated headlines for months,

However, two years on from the invasion, conversations around this have dwindled. The cost of energy continues to spark debate – impacting economic growth while straining the finances of households and businesses – but energy security as a challenge feels like a concern of the past.

What this calls for is industry engagement to reinforce the challenge with consumers again. The public must learn about the risk we still face, while galvanising support for energy transition projects and the opportunities these present. This can provide not just a secure future, but a boost for local economies and recruitment.  

A common plan, linking together the different faces of the energy industry, would help make the case for the sector.

It is clear that the energy transition will have an impact on jobs and skills. Rather than focusing on potential topline numbers, though, the industry would be better served by digging into the details to determine exactly what the jobs are and how to connect people with business.

Signpost

Every worker in the energy sector is aware of changes coming. Quite how this will work out on an individual basis is unclear.

Workers are faced with a quandary. Without knowing how fast things will change, it is hard to take decisions on being ready for the future.

For instance, those in the oil and gas sector offshore are making a good living. Would reskilling for a career in the wind industry be feasible? Questions around salaries, work contracts and more make such changes daunting.

The case can be made, again, for more direction from government. But companies can also take the lead in showing what their plans and how careers can evolve. The industry is able – and better placed in some regards – to drive progression.

And it is the companies that will struggle to execute their new plans if they cannot access the mature pool of talents already available.

This sense of uncertainty helps drive people out of the sector, to work onshore, but also out of the basin. While the UK’s attitude towards oil and gas is challenging, other destinations are more welcoming.

New entrants

Attracting children and students to consider the energy sector for a career is in some ways more straightforward. A more coherent communication plan would provide benefits.

All must take further action on diversity. While middle-aged white men may dominate the industry, the sector has much to gain from looking further afield.

To attract a more diverse pool of candidates, the industry must put more effort into foregrounding people who do not conform to the stereotypes of energy workers.

Attracting new workers has sometimes seemed like a box-ticking exercise. Graduates want information about potential opportunities. Industry can certainly improve how it delivers this.

Amid the energy sector plans, there must be a recognition that not everything can be done domestically.

Community

ScotWind is cited as an instance of how to focus on opportunities. Applicants to the offshore wind round made supply chain commitments intended to bolster local involvement in these major works.

This is not just about opportunities. For ScotWind, and other major projects to succeed, they will need onshore links such as substations, to deliver power to the grid. Local jobs would do well in compensating impacted communities for disruption. Support for these routes to employment is tangible, with targeted skills programmes employing people within regions to accelerate projects that will sustain energy sector employment and sustain a region’s economic performance and contribution to net zero emissions.

Historically, the oil and gas sector has been a boom-to-bust industry. While the booms pull new people in, busts throw them out – and turn off potential newcomers. It may be that a move to offshore wind – and other areas such carbon capture and hydrogen – may have some immunity from this cycle. 

Some steps will be needed to unlock local participation in the next wave of jobs. Perhaps most critically, port facilities can serve a number of uses. These will provide a means to connect onshore manufacturing with offshore installation.

Overall, there is a need for collaboration. The word is overused. However, for the industry to succeed, companies must come together with each other and work out how to take the next step, to inform people, politicians and workers of how to deliver the coming change.

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