Tackling the skills shortage

THE oil and gas industry needs to address issues such as migration and attracting and retaining Generation Y to tackle the skills shortage, speakers told the annual APPEA conference yesterday.

In Monday afternoon's skills, education and training session, delegates heard there would be a 10-15% staff deficit by 2010. Last year, the average age of workers in the industry was 51 and by 2015 the current workforce would retire.

Stewart Hannay from Arcergy says the figures are alarming.

"People are in short supply but essential to success. The industry in general is struggling to attract, retain and develop staff," he said.

In his Monday morning address, APPEA chairman Colin Beckett said the organisation had begun addressing the skills problems.

APPEA's National Skills Shortage Strategy has received $470,000 assistance from the Australian Government's Strategic Intervention program to help create training and employment opportunities in sections of the community currently under-represented in the upstream oil and gas industry.

"Stage one of the NSSS is directed at increasing training and employment opportunities for Indigenous Australians, women and mature-age personnel," Beckett said.

"The project, currently being implemented here in Western Australia, in South Australia and the Northern Territory, is on schedule and making good progress."

APPEA is currently discussing stage two of the project with the government. This stage two would be aimed at expanding employment opportunities in the industry for indigenous Australians across the country.

Beckett also said APPEA has continued to provide support for the development of Western Australia's Challenger TAFE Australian Centre for Energy and Processing Training ACEPT.

The centre began training process plant operators in February this year.

"The larger-than-expected trainee intake clearly demonstrates the value of this facility as a petroleum industry response to training," Beckett said.

ACEPT project director Rob Meecham told the conference's skills, education and training session that the centre has a fully operational process train with process controllers and simulation provided by Honeywell that gives trainees world-class skills training in all aspects of process operations.

ACEPT offers generic training courses that enable process operators to obtain qualifications recognised throughout the petroleum industry. This will help the industry cope with a significant increase in the demand for process operators as new projects come online and existing staff retire, he said.

APPEA is also supporting other initiatives to address the skills shortage, including one-day career adviser seminars and supporting an oil and gas industry awareness program for high schools in Darwin.

Modelled on the successful WA Schools Information program, the Year 10 Energy Challenge program is being implemented by ConocoPhillips and is entering its second year of operation.

But addressing the needs and wants of current university students and recent graduates was also important, Acergy's Hannay said.

Focusing on and understanding Generation Y would be crucial to managing the skills shortage and companies needed to be aware of the Generation Y mindset and their expectations, according to Hannay.

Arcergy currently has a model tailored to Generation Y expectations and is offering a two-year program to increase the number of graduate engineers in the industry.

According to Hannay, the program is a good way for graduates to gain experience and has almost a 100% retention rate.

"New graduates are unwilling to commit to one company for a number of years - the average is two years," he said.

"With our program, we have addressed their expectations."

Jason Berry from KPMG says migration is another issue affecting the skills crisis.

Since 1994 there has been a gradual increase in migration but this is not enough to end the skills crisis, according to Berry.

He said the industry must lobby government to reform the current migration process.

Berry said industry is concerned with the processes involved in obtaining the sub-class 457 visa, which allows overseas workers to work temporarily in Australia.

"The processes with the visa such as approval times have blown out significantly from around 1-2 weeks to between 2-4 weeks and this impacts our clients," he said.

In Western Australia alone, 400,000 workers would be needed over the next 10 years if economic growth were to be maintained, according to Berry. By 2017, there would a 150,000 worker shortfall in WA alone.

Berry said the process of obtaining a visa should be reviewed for faster approval to allow overseas workers to work in Australia.