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John McDonald, Managing Director, and David Doig, Global CEO, OPITO, UK

John McDonald, Managing Director at OPITO, UK, and David Doig, global CEO, discuss the company’s thorough analysis of the North Sea oil and gas skills landscape, the most thorough analysis ever undertaken, that will commence early 2014 with nine of the UK’s leading energy, business and skills organisations. In addition, they share their view on the UK’s labour market and lack of skilled workforce.

Mr McDonald, how did you come to manage OPITO Group?

John McDonald: I have known the OPITO organization for a long time. In fact I started working with the organization in 2005. In a former role as a Director of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA), the government body responsible for the accreditation and awarding of qualifications in Scotland, I worked closely with OPITO developing qualifications and other services. I led the SQA’s development of new products and services and created new markets for the organization in Asia and the Middle East.

An opportunity came up to work at OPITO, which brought me back into the skills agenda in terms of what is happening here, now and in the future. Prior to my current role at OPITO, I was director of the international workforce development for OPITO. I worked with a number of oil majors, leading on OPITO’s work in building agreements with governments and industry in places as far-ranging as Oman, Iraq, Malaysia and East Timor.

What are the priorities you set when you took over the reins?

John McDonald: As managing director, I will oversee OPITO’s growth as it looks to build on its success to date in delivering against the industry’s identified skills needs across all sectors, both onshore and offshore, and ensuring the learning and training supply is in place to meet them.

In this context, the most thorough analysis of the North Sea oil and gas skills landscape ever undertaken will commence in November 2013 with nine of the UK’s leading energy, business and skills organizations involved. The study is being led and managed by OPITO on behalf of industry and in partnership with Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce, Decom North Sea, the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board, Energy North, and the International Association of Drilling Contractors. The North Sea Chapter, the Offshore Contractors Association, Oil & Gas UK and Subsea UK will also be involved.

What are your expectations?

John McDonald: It is too early to speculate about the outcome. What we need is a significant body of research. A number of surveys have taken place over the past years—different pieces of research. This survey is the most comprehensive study involving all players around the table supported by Westminster and Edinburgh governments and other national agencies.

The idea of this analysis is to look at the current skill gaps and what they will be in the future. Our aim is to create a national skill strategy, which will give greater clarity of specific gaps and allow the industry to target activities to address them to meet the long-term demand for a skilled workforce.

This specific piece of work will clarify, for example, how to attract more women to the industry and how to attract younger people to study engineering, science or mathematics subjects. Furthermore it will provide the number of engineering graduates required.

David Doig: Not only is this survey collaborative in such a way that has never been done before, we also ask the industry to face up to the issues identified as a collective body. If, collectively, a strategy will be set on the basis of the finding, it will be the first ever national skills strategy and ensuring the sector’s current and future workforce have the necessary skills to fulfil the potential of the UK’s most prosperous industrial sector. I believe the industry has been weak in the past, lacking a collective agreement. We have reached a defining moment; the industry needs to make choices but needs to stop saying it has a skill shortage and do nothing about it.

Historically the industry has been willing to buy experience to get a project done yet long-term investment has been lacking. While at OPITO, I went through three skills shortages and three massive downturns but the industry never addresses the issues. It learns, understands and then it forgets. It is a commodity driven market and as soon as the oil price goes up, the learning disappears.

What do you mean by skill shortage?

David Doig: It could be two or three geoscientists for ten days to look at data, or 5,000 blue collar workers for a three month maintenance assignment. I do not know where the skill shortage is and if you ask the industry, they won’t be able to tell you. Having said that, the industry should ask itself the right questions in order to find a solution.

John McDonald: It is a call to action to do something about the perpetual skill shortage. We are training people in the UK and across Europe to the highest standards ever seen and yet there continues to be a shortage. Our objective is to understand what this means for individual sectors and organizations.

Could you give an example how OPITO promotes the O&G industry to the new generation?

John McDonald: OPITO is very active in educational tools; the OPITO Petrochallenge is an example. A dynamic online educational event, the competition sees pupils around the world take on the role of oil barons. The program was launched in Aberdeen and designed to encourage students to consider a career in the oil and gas sector.

Frankly, there are a number of OPITO initiatives underway to attract future talent into the sector. These initiatives are designed with an awareness of the gender imbalance within the sector and the need to retain equal interest from male and female school pupils. One such initiative being driven by OPITO is “Mechanics in Practice”, which the skills and learning development team is currently trialling with schools. This initiative is designed to ensure that both males and females are given the same opportunity to experience and learn through the hands-on mechanical activities. In addition, we run the Modern Apprenticeship scheme. This scheme has brought nearly 1,600 young people into the oil and gas sector in the last 15 years, creating a grassroots solution to the industry-wide skills shortage. Operators and major contractors have invested significantly into this program. Backed by some of the largest companies, it is one of the biggest industry-led MA programs of its kind in the UK.

David Doig: When we advertise for our apprentices, for every job we receive over a hundred applications from young people wanting to join the industry. There has never been a reported issue attracting youngsters to the industry. However, due to demands of the industry, people without experience are not finding jobs.

What is the role of the government?

David Doig: They are making a lot of noise. As the central and pivotal skills body of the UK, OPITO has a lead role to engage, inform and guide both governments, Scottish and Westminster. However, all too often governments have their own agenda.

What governments do like about OPITO is that we are an industry owned organization built on a self-sustaining, solid business plan. This is what makes OPITO unique.

John McDonald: Both governments have been supportive of addressing the broader skills issue.

When we met you in 2008 you said: OPITO’s achievements all sound pretty good, but OPITO is not doing enough, because the 100,000 figure should be 500,000, and it shouldn’t be 24 countries but 100. Today, five years later, what has been achieved?

David Doig: We reached an international market of 42 countries and 280,000 trained but are still not doing enough.

Our main achievement is that now there are more people going to work and returning home safe than before OPITO was involved.

We have positioned ourselves as a global leader for people trained to OPITO standards; we have demonstrated how it adds value to the industry and employers within it. We have signed groundbreaking agreements with governments and national oil companies in places such as Malaysia and Iraq. Furthermore, since we last met, we opened offices in Houston, Kuala Lumpur and Dubai.

We have changed OPITO’s overseas business into longer-term strategies. While the UK and Scottish Governments claim they are focusing on long-term strategies as well, I believe foreign governments are better at it as they seem hungrier for the prize. If the hydrocarbon basin is of importance to a nation, a long-term focus should be put in place. OPITO has developed to become a strategic advisor to governments advising on a long-term feedstock model that delivers a sustainable supply of highly skilled people. At the same time, the education structure is increasing influenced, educating scholars in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

In March this year OPITO was awarded a contract from Shell Iraq to support training for its workers on the Majnoon project and to improve the vocational training centres in Basra. What factors do you believe led to winning this contract?

David Doig: This deal comes after OPITO’s landmark agreement with the Iraqi Ministry for Oil in 2011. The reason we entered into this agreement is quite simple: Iraq had a rough time and in order to transform the economy of the war torn country, we are working with the international oil companies in Iraq to design a framework for delivering suitably qualified Iraqi oil and gas workers to help the country fully exploit its emerging oil industry. In fact, this contract is one of a series of workforce development initiatives OPITO is undertaking in several oil and gas provinces around the world.

Mr Doig, you have been with OPITO since 1999, what has been your proudest moment at the organization?

In 2005 I was in Borneo when a helicopter crashed into the South China Sea. These guys recently adopted OPITO standards and told me during the initial investigation that they knew what to do because of the training received and they all went home.

What makes me proud is the way the industry views the organization. OPITO has high values and a sense of integrity beyond reproach. Governments and international oil companies are comfortable with the arrangements and respect OPITO for the way it operates.


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