Trained workers key to a healthy industry

Oil and gas companies in the GCC are reaping the rewards of training and equipping the local workforce, thereby lessening their reliance on foreign talent

Engineers listen as they are talked through their training programme.
Engineers listen as they are talked through their training programme.

Gone are the days when the Middle East, despite being the largest oil producing region in the world, overwhelmingly relied on Western training and foreign workers to operate its oil and gas industry.

Along with making huge strides in adopting technologies that have helped oil and gas companies increase production levels, the industry has also made significant advancements in raising its overall health, safety, security and environment (HSSE) levels.

In an era of ‘Saudisation’, ‘Qatarisation’, ‘Emiratisation’ and ‘Omanisation’, not only have regional countries begun training and deploying the national workforce in the energy sector, but have also realised how crucial the consistent imparting of skills and training is to maintain and even improve the HSSE standards of the oil and gas segment. Industry players sing in chorus about how skill levels are benefitting from these nationalisation programmes.

“There is a perception that perhaps the Middle East is not as skilled as other major producing regions,” Andy Ryan, VP Middle East and Central Asia, of newly-formed recruitment and consultancy firm Airswift, commented. “However, the national oil companies (NOCs) have been partnering with the international oil companies for many years now, and this has resulted in a significant experience and knowledge transfer – bolstering the skills of the national workforce.”

“The specialist skills that operators cannot find locally are usually sourced through expatriates. However, in the current environment, NOCs are taking a cost-conscious approach to skills development, which includes accelerating the upskilling of their internal workforces. We are seeing this strong focus on nationalisation across the Middle East, especially in areas such as Saudi Arabia and Iraq. By concentrating on upskilling the national workforce, companies are enabling themselves to meet stringent local content targets,” Ryan said.

Tom Christensen, managing director, EMEA - Oil & Gas, of EPC contracting company Black & Veatch in fact goes on to say that the number of expatriate workers in the GCC is dwindling. “The Middle East has an abundant and well established workforce. However there is still a need for expat supervision and top level management. Over time the need for expats is diminishing as local professionals are trained and developed. This is a natural progression and healthy for companies and countries.”

“Developing domestic engineering and construction resources is central to enabling long-term sustainable development. Fostering a skilled indigenous workforce has benefits beyond creating employment opportunities and reducing the reliance on imported expertise. Using local professionals can also enhance project outcomes,” Christensen says of the merits of nationalisation schemes.

Raising HSSE standards

The regional oil and gas industry has, ever since the advent of the fossil fuels-led boom, been known to offer challenging conditions for workers. The labour force is often exposed to hazardous environments which can include anything from working in temperatures of about 50°C, to operating in desert and arid topographies with little or no water availability, to drilling oil in risky offshore platforms and rigs. In such a scenario, training the workers to help them attain highly professional capabilities, in order to prevent loss of life and injuries, becomes critical.

“Companies invest significant resources in making people aware of the various risks and hazards in the workplace. In order to reduce the risk of incidents, there has to be an understanding of the difference between compliance and competence when it comes to effective workforce development,” Raju Venkat, vice president - Partnerships and Business Development, Atlas Knowledge Group, told Oil & Gas Middle East. “To be competent an organisation or individual must have sufficient knowledge of the tasks to be undertaken and the risks involved. They must have the experience and ability to carry out their duties in relation to the project, to recognise their limitations and take appropriate action to prevent harm to those carrying out construction work, or those affected by the work.”

Ryan of Airswift agrees saying that climatic conditions probably pose the most daunting challenges for oil and gas sector workers in the region. “In all Middle Eastern countries there is one prominent environmental risk factor – the weather. We ensure all of our employees on the ground are trained to spot and treat potentially fatal conditions, such as heat stroke, that are caused by the elements,” he says.

“At Airswift, we undertake a thorough desktop risk analysis of a country before sending any employee into what could be a potentially be a high-risk area. We renew this assessment every six months to ensure the safety of our employees and contractors. In countries such as Iraq, our contractors also undergo security training to prepare for any potential incidents,” he adds explaining the company’s strategy.

Christensen shares an interesting account of the HSSE practices Black & Veatch follows: “To promote a culture of working and living safely, we encourage our professionals to think about safety one task and one day at a time. We believe that success begins with what is referred to as a ‘Zero Injuries Today’ plan. Success comes when that plan is widely embraced by skilled craft, supervisors and office personnel.”

“We start from a simple question, ‘Can you finish your shift today without being injured?’ 100% of the time, everybody raises their hand. It is important to have an achievable, realistic goal. That goal has to be something that people can easily understand, but more importantly, achieve. New professionals go through an intensive safety training programme prior to even going to a job site. This training is regularly updated and refresher training is held annually,” he comments.

The blow of oil prices

It is no wonder that the present downturn in global oil and gas industry, caused by crude oil prices trading at around $30 a barrel, has impacted companies across the board. Major producers, especially in the Middle East, have been cutting down on operational costs in a bid to stay afloat as they continue to pump hard. The NOCs have reportedly been hacking their budgets allocated to any and every aspect of operation that does not help them produce more oil or gas for less; skills and training included.

“Historically skills and training budgets are a soft target for cost reduction, however the smart employers do not follow this path. Failing to invest in skills development and the safety of the workforce is a very short term gain that will bring significant pain in the medium and long term,” David Doig, group chief executive at OPITO, told Oil & Gas Middle East. “The oil and gas industry will exist for generations to come and a lack of investment in skills now will without a doubt lead to an imbalance in supply and demand of skilled people in the future.”

Stuart Douglas, regional sales manager – Middle East, of IT services provider Petrotechnics, is in agreement saying: “In today’s low oil price environment every budget is being reviewed and this includes skills development and training. However, our experience of previous downturns shows the companies who take a medium to long-term approach to HSE and training outperform their short-term focussed counterparts. Our ‘best in class’ customers tend to use operational excellence and process safety management as a means of better identifying where they need to invest in training as they drive towards improved cost efficiency.”

Venkat of Atlas shares his perspective on the question from a more economics perspective. “The oil prices are not a simple supply and demand equation. The global markets are experiencing a glut in supply as the global slowdown impacts on consumption while carbon free economies put more pressure on the industry. Most industries have looked to innovate to achieve cost efficiencies and economies of scale but the oil industry has been slow adopting a lean sigma principle. In some countries, spend or budgets are being reviewed, revised and in some instances put on hold,” he says.

He also offers his take on how oil and gas companies will eventually come to attach more importance to training their labour force, as a means to save (and even earn) more. “Due to the high-risk nature of the sector however, safety will always be afforded great importance and priority. The market will continue to grow and the industry will continue to change and evolve, the focus for organisations will be to continue to invest in order to meet the required skills and knowledge to keep their workforce safe,” he says.

Demand for training

Despite the economic slump, industry experts insist workforce training is high on the agenda of major companies in the region, and see that as their way to maintain HSSE standards which play a big role in reflecting the overall image of the company’s operations. Certain existing and new training and certification courses, they say, thus remain quite popular in the region.

Doig talks about the courses by OPITO, which has been instrumental in setting training standards globally. “Basic survival training and H2S training are both prominent in the region and we have seen significant growth in these areas over the last 10 years but there is still not enough of this training being carried out. We have seen the emergence of more technically focussed training, such as basic hydrocarbon processing, electrical, mechanical and instrument maintenance in recent years; and we are also seeing growth trends in other emergency response training as defined within the OPITO Emergency Response Framework; for example specialist fire teams, managing major emergencies, coxswains and helicopter landing officers, etc.”

The region is a mix of greenfields and brownfield developments. Broadly speaking, in greenfield and steady state operations the focus is in areas such as permit to work systems, gas testing, manual handling, working at heights and H2S awareness and knowledge. In brownfields, as assets age there is also a demand for programs such as mechanical joint integrity, small bore tubing and asset integrity.

“There is a requirement in Qatar for multinationals entering the country and indigenous workers to have a standard baseline of knowledge and that is evident in the uptake of the internationally recognised OPITO International Minimum Industry Safety Training (IMIST) which forms part of the screening process,” Venkat says. “There is also a requirement for [knowledge of] a basic level of English.”

Christensen believes behavioural pattern of workers is also fundamental in shaping workers’ mindsets to operate in the industry. “The region’s leading organisations are increasingly looking to behavioural H&S programmes, in our instance this is the Zero Injuries Today programme. Some of the region’s leaders are also seeking to become beacons of best practice, so there is a growing interest in attaining international standards for H&S and environmental performance, such as ISO 14001 and OHSAS 18001.”

Given the sustained demand among companies to hone the skillsets of their workforce, experts remain optimistic about the future of skills and training in the region. “In the Middle East, we still believe there will be a strong demand for training and certification. However, the training mix that is needed may change, because of the NOCs’ strong focus on upskilling and nationalising their workforce. With that being said, there are still significant opportunities in the region for expatriate skills and we believe this will continue,” Ryan concludes.

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Oil & Gas Middle East - September 2020

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