Skills shortage is NZ oilies' top priority: PEPANZ

NEW Zealand’s chronic shortage of qualified energy workers – for both upstream and downstream sectors – has prompted the industry to initiate a program aimed at training and recruiting more people for the country’s small but burgeoning energy sector.

The Petroleum Exploration and Production Association of New Zealand (Pepanz) recently briefed Associate Energy Minister Harry Duynhoven on the energy skills shortage that is now reaching crisis proportions.

Shortages are increasing in almost every area of the industry – subsurface and surface technical professions, management and business services, operations, offshore and onshore rig workers, maintenance, engineering and transport.

Pepanz and interested industry representatives met in New Plymouth late last week and agreed to start the first phase of the program to train sufficient of the “second generation” of workers for New Zealand’s growing energy industry.

Pepanz executive officer John Pfahlert says this is the top priority for his organisation.

“While we have other important items on the agenda, such as the review of the government’s minerals program, this skills shortage is the biggest,” Pfahlert told from Wellington this morning.

Participants at last Thursday’s meeting decided to immediately invest $NZ50,000 ($A43,500) on an industry-wide survey on the extent of the skills shortage.

When the results of the survey become available during the second quarter of 2007, industry approval will be sought for another $NZ25,000 to develop a plan aimed at finding and training more skilled workers.

Then the chosen plan of action will be implemented and managed for at least the next three years.

Another Pepanz-organised meeting is scheduled to be held in Wellington in the middle of this month.

Energy industry veteran Ian Browning – who heads the Pepanz health and safety in employment and operations sub-committee – said the initial survey would be an assessment of the key skill and resource needs of Taranaki’s upstream oil and gas companies, service companies, and associated processing plants.

Then a comprehensive business plan pulling together the required needs of all parties – exploration and production companies, service providers, training establishments, government departments and other organisations – will be developed, along with the estimated costs, time and resources required for the next three to five years, and for the next five to 10 years.

Finally, all parties will need to commit to carrying out the agreed plan and to funding it for the long term.

New Zealand’s first energy developments – Kapuni, Maui and McKee – together with the associated synthetic petrol, methanol, ammonia urea and various pipeline projects are now regarded as mature assets.

Many of the people who worked on those projects during the 1950s-1980s are also now “mature” – with some already reaching retirement.

So a second generation of skilled energy workers is needed to handle the quartet of major developments – the offshore Pohokura and Kupe gas-condensate, and Tui Area and Maari oil projects – and the already planned exploration programs.

Kupe operator Origin Energy and lead contractor Technip have advertised for staff needed for the construction phase of the $NZ980 million Kupe project. Positions include civil, electrical, mechanical, instrumentation, logistics and piping personnel.

Browning said it was imperative that systems and initiatives were put in place that allowed New Zealand to develop its own skilled workforce to meet the requirements of these projects.

More home-grown graduates and skilled workers were needed, not industry players “borrowing and pinching” existing staff, nor them relying too much on overseas specialists.

“New Zealand could find itself unattractive in international competitiveness because of this skills and resource depletion … should appropriate action not be taken to address the issues, New Zealand will find itself uncompetitive longer term.

“There’s a growing danger that exploration companies will go elsewhere if this country’s resources are so stretched that we can’t handle any additional activity,” Browning warned.

The Greymouth Petroleum-sponsored Taranaki Drilling School, now in its second year of operation, is only part of the solution.