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Interview

with Glenn Porter, CEO, Energy Skills Queensland

07.12.2010 / Energyboardroom

Energy Skills Queensland is one of the four centres of excellence for training and skill development in the state of Queensland. As the latest of these centres to be established, was there a chance to learn from the experiences of the previous institutions and perfect the model?

Energy Skills Queensland works in both the energy and telecommunications industries, and has been operational for nearly three years now. We have taken some of the best practices from the other centres of excellence and brought some other insights and strategies into Energy Skills that perhaps some of the other centres haven’t used for various reasons.

We have taken a slightly different approach than some of the other centres of excellence: Energy Skills Queensland has made it a priority to work closely with some of the leading companies in the industry in order to identify what their demand for skills was likely to be and how that compared with the supply skills within the labour market. That allowed us to focus our attention on those areas of greatest need and risk to the industry.

The energy industry is also crucial for the government. I imagine when Energy Skills Queensland was established the need to cooperate both with companies and the government was a top priority. How difficult is it to work hand in hand with both of these stakeholders?

The government and the industry do have different objectives and sometimes they don’t always perfectly match. However in Queensland we have been very lucky. The Queensland government is very much focused upon working collaboratively with industry, particularly new emerging industries, and they have really made great efforts to work closely with us and work closely with the coal seam gas (CSG) and liquefied natural gas (LNG) industries.

Energy Skills Queensland has worked to pool the four principle companies together: Origin, Santos, Queensland Gas Company (QGC) and Arrow, and these companies have been working very closely with us for two years to identify what their needs are. Then we went as an industry group to lobby the government and influence government policy to enable the industry to get that support that it needs.

These are all competing companies in a very competitive market place. Getting them all into a room and getting them talking, opening up and comparing their issues was very difficult. It took us around six months to get over that ingrained competitive nature, but we are now at the point where these companies freely share their issues and the strategies they are implementing, and learning from each other. They are at the point now where they have realised that collaborating and working together is going to be better, both for their individual companies and for the industry as a whole. They have learnt that collaboration is the way to go rather than working individually to try and resolve their workforce issues; to work as an industry and resolve their workforce issues that way. It’s about increasing the size of the pool of skilled workers in Queensland rather than competing for an ever-diminishing group of skilled workers.

What would you highlight as the main achievements of Energy Skills Queensland since it was established in 2007?

The work that we have done around the CSG and LNG industry is up there with our greatest achievements. We cover a whole range of sectors, including CSG and LNG, but also the electricity generation and supply industry, telecommunications and sustainable energy amongst others. However, getting those four companies to work in collaboration with one another with Energy Skills Queensland chairing the meetings has been a great outcome.

Another success has been the impact and influence that we have had on government policy. Working as an industry group has resulted in some great achievements such as a $10 million training fund being established, with 50% funded of this funded by the government and 50% by the industry to upskill more than 2000 workers within the industry.

Energy Skills Queensland has also been doing a lot of other work with the industry and with training organisations in Queensland. As this industry is so new to Queensland, there is a lack of skills within the Queensland labour market because there just hasn’t been an industry here before. But there has also been a lack of capacity and capability in our vocational education and training industry and universities to train people to have the skills that this industry needs. Therefore, we have been working with vocational training providers like TAFE in Queensland (which is the major government owned training organisation) but also private training providers, to build their capability and develop their training to meet the needs of industry. We now have some very good training organisations delivering training to meet those needs.

We are also looking at working with companies to establish centralised specialist training facilities. For example, we are working on one currently which focused on gas compression mechanics training. To transmit gas through a pipeline you need gas compressors that are driven by gas-fired engines and reciprocating and screw-driven gas compressors, to compress gas through a pipeline. Building and maintaining these facilities requires specialist skills that just aren’t present in Queensland, so we’ve got the key players together and they are centralising their equipment and training resources within a training organisation to deliver the training needed.

We are also in the process of developing tailored apprenticeship and traineeship programmes to meet the needs of the CSG and LNG industry, looking at existing apprenticeships and how they need to be changed or augmented to meet the needs of this particular industry.

This industry is growing very quickly and needs people in place immediately to get these projects off the ground, but at the same time Queensland needs look to the long term and make sure that education programmes fit the needs of the industry in the future. On which of these two objectives is Energy Skills Queensland currently more focused?

We need to do both and we’re trying to do them at the same time. The industry is gearing up: the first LNG project in the state recently received a final investment decision, with the second expected before the end of the year, and consequently both of these companies will need a construction workforce on the ground in Gladstone, in the Surat Basin, and along the transmission pipeline that needs to be constructed between those two geographic locations. At its peak, this activity could require a workforce of up to eight or nine thousand people, so attracting people to the industry, getting them skilled up to do this work is a major challenge to the industry.

Most of these skills are general construction skills that should be out there in the labour market albeit not in the numbers required, so we will need to train a lot more people to do that. After the construction phase comes the operations phase, which is much longer: the plants will operate for at least 25-30 years and whilst they will require fewer people, they will need them for a lot longer. Therefore, Energy Skills Queensland is working with the four gas companies in a longer-term strategy to build the capability and train people so that the industry continues to have a long term supply of skills as it moves forward.

The government has been very supportive of your activities, and you mentioned specifically the $10 million training fund that has been put forward to help you. How are you using this money that’s coming to Energy Skills Queensland?

The funds are earmarked for the operations phase of these projects. We’ve been working with the four companies and their preferred training organisations to establish training for their process plant operators, maintenance and operations tradespeople and managers, and helping the companies to build their own internal training assessment capability. We are also working with some of their supply chain. For example, all of the drilling on these projects has been outsourced to drilling companies, so we’re working directly with a number of drilling companies to train people for that industry, and we have contracts in place for training organisations to do that. Energy Skills Queensland has training happening at Gladstone, out in the Surat Basin region and in South East Queensland. This activity will ramp up over the next couple of years as the projects employ more people and need to train more people as a result.

It’s very encouraging to see a project like this: a real commitment to both creating a new industry and making it beneficial to the population of the state as new jobs are created. Are people also being recruited from overseas?

There are a small percentage of highly skilled technical people coming in from offshore. The perspective of both Energy Skills Queensland and the companies it works with has always been to train Queenslanders and Australians as a primary source of skilled labour for these projects. When you train local people, the attrition rates tend to be a lot lower. Some of the work we have done in other sectors has clearly shown that bringing in skills from offshore is good for a short-term project but from a longer-term perspective the attrition rates are much higher.

Clearly the Queensland government has an incentive to educate and train Queenslanders for those opportunities as well. We have always been of the view that we can bring in skilled migrants for the specialist skills that aren’t physically here and take too long to develop for training to be a viable option, but slowly build our capability in Queensland so that people can be trained locally. To fill the gap in the short term you need to bring those skills in from wherever they are. In the longer term we want a system in Queensland to train people so that they are being developed locally. CSG to LNG projects have never been done anywhere else in the world, but clearly those specialist skill sets are quite transferrable to this industry from other areas in the oil and gas sector.

I imagine as the CEO of a company that specialises in training and looking at new challenges this has been a very good project for you to work on. Do you have a dream project that you would like to work on in the years to come?

In Australia we have the national broadband network to roll out, which comes under the responsibility of Energy Skills Queensland. That’s an enormous challenge; its Australia’s largest infrastructure project in history. We would like to have some part to play in that – a similar part as we have had in the development of the coal seam gas industry. It will probably be a shorter-term project because it will be constructed over a five to seven year period, but it will create a massive demand for skills. There’s also renewable and sustainable energy. Once we get the economics right there will be massive opportunities in Australia to grow our renewable energy generation base, which creates a lot of exciting challenges in terms of new skills. Energy Skills has done some initial workforce planning, looking at the skills that the renewables sector needs compared to traditional power generation, and there are some significant differences. That’s another exciting industry for us in the future.

Do you have a final message that you would like to send to our readers about Energy Skills Queensland?

This whole project has been a great example of industry working collaboratively to develop an industry workforce. Most companies tend to be focused on their own needs and they don’t think strategically. This industry is one of the few that has thought strategically, got together and shared a lot of confidential and sensitive information. They have done this with a view of the greater good, which is building an industry workforce not just for one company, but rather for all companies within that industry to draw upon.

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