Developing the oil and gas industry’s future workforce

Jun 15, 2018

Leading Australian employment consultancy Hays recently reported the outlook for the oil and gas industry was mainly positive, particularly in Western Australia, where there is increased growth in maintenance and sustainability.

Hays’ 2018 Jobs Report has suggested technicians, project engineers, operator maintainers and pipeline engineers will be in demand to meet new industry growth and there will be a shortage in skilled workers in the short term.

However, with the oil and gas industry currently going through rapid and radical changes related to new market requirements, the introduction of new technologies, increased digitalisation and the retirement of many experienced workers, there has been a significant industry, government and academic focus on identifying the workforce of the future.

That topic was one of the subjects of an important session within the AOG 2018 Collaboration Forum, and we recently caught up with one of the presenters for that session, The University of Western Australia (UWA) and BHP Fellow for Engineering for Remote Operations Professor Melinda Hodkiewicz, to obtain her viewpoint on this all-important topic.

There has been increasing discussion about the ‘maintenance workforce of the future’ for the oil and gas sector. What views to do you have on what changes are occurring and what new job opportunities may be generated in the future?

MH: Essentially, the execution of the front line work of maintainers will not change significantly. Some tasks, particularly nonintrusive inspection and monitoring, may be automated and we will use some new tools, but the vast majority of repair and replacement maintenance tasks will still to be done by maintainers.

However, maintenance management should change significantly. As we get better at asset health prediction and work planning we will reduce the current overhead in unplanned, unnecessary and rescheduled work. In this more stable environment there will be new roles to manage algorithms that support the prediction, scheduling and planning processes. Ideally, improved planning and fewer failures should lead to fewer maintenance interventions.

What will oil and gas companies need to consider to make sure they are prepared for the changing face of their workplace and their workforce?

MH: As we continue to pursue automation in oil and gas, senior leaders need to remember people will always be the weakest part of cyber-physical systems. Experienced and motivated maintainers supported by an efficient management structure are vital for safe work. There are significant risks associated with poor-quality maintenance work.

Managing and valuing the maintainers who work with the equipment, respecting their skills and encouraging their motivation is easy to let slip in the excitement of implementing new technology.

As fewer and fewer engineers and managers have direct experience in maintenance roles, it is easy to lose sight of the dynamic and complex nature of maintenance work and the value of the people that do it well.

How has digitalisation and artificial intelligence (AI) changed the shape of the workforce of the future?

MH: Consider the transformation that occurred since the deregulation of Australia’s banking sector. Customers can now manage their money directly through apps and websites. Gone are the days of having to deal with bank tellers and the back offices that supported them. As a result, banks have become more productive and profitable. In parallel, a new FinTech service ecosystem has developed to promote and accelerate this digital transformation. I see a similar opportunity for maintenance in the resources sector. The impact of digitisation and AI on back-office roles will continue.

However, while some tasks have become more efficient for many – working remotely, for example – the nature of day-to-day intrusive maintenance work in the resources sector has not really changed and it is difficult to see how it will. We get excited about the idea of robotic maintenance and marvel at the achievements of AlphaGo but, without a lot of smart people to set it up, it can’t play tic-tac-toe. In order to avoid disappointment, careful thought needs to go into applications where robotic maintenance has a good chance of success.

How does all of this change the way universities and training organisations go about their business and ensure they are preparing their students to be the workforce of the future?

MH: All engineering students should learn to code and know how to learn a new code. The latter is the more important skill, as it is about being self-motivated and using resources freely available on the internet rather than waiting to be taught in a formal class. Universities should be encouraging students to learn on their own, engage in not-for-credit experiences and work with a wide range of people.

Why is a session such as the one at AOG 2018 so important for the industry and those trying to obtain employment in the sector?

MH: We say people are important for the future of our business. If you believe this then you should attend this session.

You can read more on this subject from Professor Hodkiewicz, Shell Australia Prelude Maintenance Manager Sue Beattie and Woodside Energy Vice President of Production Phil Reid by dowloading the ‘Workforce of the Future’ presentation in our conference page. 

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