Amanda Doyle analyses a survey of oil and gas workers to reveal their thoughts on how the energy transition affects them
OIL and gas workers have called for more training, better policies, and for employers to appreciate the skillsets of current staff, according to a member survey on the impacts of the energy transition.
The energy transition – where there is a shift from fossil fuels to renewables – is already under way in many countries. However, transitioning to net zero in a manner that is fair to those employed in sectors such as oil and gas is not always given consideration. A “just transition” is where highly skilled people in heavy carbon industries are retrained for greener industries rather than being made redundant. It should also ensure that communities aren’t left devastated by the closure of facilities. We asked members of IChemE’s Oil and Natural Gas Special Interest Group (SONG) to fill out an anonymous survey on their thoughts and experiences of the just transition.
There were 196 respondents to the survey. They primarily work in upstream oil and gas processing (40%), followed by consultancy (14%), downstream (12%), and other professions (11%). Their jobs are located in the UK (52%), Australia (9%), Malaysia (7%), New Zealand (3%), Singapore (3%), US (3%), Qatar (2%), and other countries. Their membership grades are Chartered Member (46%), Fellow (26%), Associate Member (25%), and Affiliate Member (3%).
28 people (14%) have recently lost their jobs or are being made redundant. Of those, 24 were not offered opportunities to retrain or move to another sector.
All participants were asked if they are currently considering switching to another sector: 43% said yes, and of those people, hydrogen is the sector that they would most likely switch to. Other sectors included CCUS, energy storage, waste reprocessing, water, data analytics, mining, and pharmaceuticals.
All participants were asked to rate barriers for transitioning to a greener job. The “availability of secure jobs” was the biggest barrier, with 66% either agreeing or strongly agreeing. This was followed by “qualifications don’t guarantee a job”, with 63% either agreeing or strongly agreeing.
43% of participants manage other people in their company. Of these, 52% have discussed the possibility of retraining in greener sectors with their staff and 70% plan to do so in future.
Participants were asked: “What do you think needs to be done to ensure a just transition? For example, are there any actions that could be taken or specific types of support that could be provided by employers, policy makers, institutions etc?” Several themes were common across the 157 answers, particularly surrounding the need for employers to do more to retain existing staff, governments to implement more joined-up policies, and the need for more training courses.
There were many comments on how employers which are changing or expanding their portfolio to include more green technology need to recognise the skillset of existing employees. They should focus on hiring from within the organisation rather than bringing in external hires. There is currently too much emphasis on employing people with experience in a specific industry. There were also concerns raised about age discrimination and that there needs to be a balanced approach that focuses on older workers as well as those just starting their careers.
There was criticism of employers being focused on profit and not caring about employees, instead making numerous redundancies without any consideration of how that affected people. It was noted that employers won’t spend to keep their current workforce without funding help from governments or institutions.
It was suggested that companies should provide time and resources for staff to look at other options, for example by inviting delegates from green companies to visit and describe their work. It was also suggested that if redundancies must happen, then employee upskilling should be mandated as part of this.
On training, participants said that there needs to be competency mapping between industries, and that existing skillsets should be examined to see what’s transferrable, and where training would be required. It was also noted that more needs to be done to showcase what jobs are available and in what disciplines. Training schemes also need to be available to contractors who can’t avail of in-company training. Training should include industry workshops, online courses, on-the-job training in different sectors, and retraining to newer technologies or processes.
A few people thought that nothing really needs to be done and it should just be left to market forces.
“I don’t think impact on staff in the oil industry will be ‘just’ or ‘unjust’ – it’s good if employers and authorities do more to assist in re-employment, but not really an obligation,” said one respondent.
There were mixed views on whether oil and gas workers should be given priority when transitioning to other sectors, with one opinion being that they should be prioritised for jobs like ex-armed forces people are, while other opinions stated that it would be naïve to think that workers should be given special treatment.
“Sustaining the fossil fuel production for reasons of social and political convenience is what has got us into the current environmental crisis and it absolutely must stop. If that means we lose our jobs then so be it. There is no point having a highly-paid job on a dying planet,” said one respondent.
There were also mixed views on salaries, with some saying that the lower salaries in sectors such as renewables would make a transition difficult, while others said that maintaining highly-paid jobs should not be a priority in the energy transition.
One respondent said: “I have tried for myself and my team to get three companies I have worked with to retrain myself and my staff. The issue is those in conventional power generation and oil and gas are paid about 20–35% more than their renewable equivalents. So the companies I have worked for would rather take fresh graduates with renewable experience or hire experienced personnel externally rather than retrain current workforce. The general response I am getting is we are too expensive to be competitive in the renewable world and there is still work to be done in oil and gas so that is where they keep us. They will use us till the work is depleted and then let us go when oil and gas work depletes.”
Others thought that this is just another crisis for the industry to get through and that there is no need to give additional help to employees. “I don’t see the need for any additional assistance. The industry’s always been cyclical. Just apply your transferrable skills to a different technology as during any downturn.”
There were concerns raised over how the energy transition is being handled, particularly in relation to public perception and how oil and gas workers are being “demonised”. Several respondents said that the transition needs to take time and not just be a “kneejerk” reaction. It was highlighted that the public don’t seem to understand that hydrocarbons are needed as feedstocks and not just for energy, and there are concerns that people will be driven out of the oil and gas sector due to it being “unfairly smeared”.
“There is too much hype and speculation in favour of renewables, where the end goal seems to justify anything and everything without regard to the economic and social costs. There needs to be more education, R&D, and assistance given to transitioning intelligently and sensitively across the board,” said one respondent.
Another said: “My main concern around the just transition is that oil and gas workers will not be treated fairly by prospective employers and will be discriminated against.”
A third added: “It is challenging as an engineer to work in the hydrocarbon field, and not feel judged by society in general.”
The perception of the industry could also encourage young professionals to seek employment elsewhere. “While oil and gas production will continue to be required as we transition and past 2050 with offsets or capture to reduce the carbon footprint to zero, the sector will not be seen as attractive to young professionals and trades who will seek out jobs in renewables. This will drive cost and risk upwards in the oil and gas sector.”
Participants were asked: “What do you think the oil and gas sector will be like in 2050? For example, do you think production will drop or stay the same? Do you think the focus will shift to something else?” Out of 175 who answered the questions, 72% thought that oil and gas production would drop – most likely at a significant rate – by 2050. 4% thought that oil production will drop, but gas would remain consistent or grow and that LNG would increase. 13% thought that oil and gas production will be similar or will increase, with seven of those also saying that renewables would have a greater part to play.
Some people said that production will have likely ceased completely in Europe and will be concentrated in areas such as Brazil and the Middle East. Many people also highlighted that oil and gas will still be needed for petrochemicals in 2050. “Society needs to be informed that we cannot just turn off the taps. Oil and gas is more than just central heating and petrol. We need to campaign to ensure that society recognises the bigger picture both in terms of hydrocarbon products and where we will end up sourcing those products from if the UK oil and gas industry is shut down too rapidly. This is not a UK problem - it has to be tackled on a global scale,” said one respondent.
Another said: “Of course oil and gas will be produced as well as coal. The limit will be imposed by geology and extraction costs not politics. Developing nations need affordable reliable energy to grow and fossil fuels are an intrinsic part of that.”
Another said: “I think oil and gas will be lucky to survive outside specialty chemicals and feedstocks. Even now the energy monopoly it has enjoyed is failing and I think will be history before even 2040.”
A number of people were concerned that job losses and gains wouldn’t be distributed evenly across countries. Developing countries are more likely to rely on fossil fuels, which would make it harder for them to transition and will lead to further inequality issues. “There appears to be little planning to achieve the switch away from oil and gas; less developed nations will need substantial support to change and will argue that we have benefited so why should they not too.”
There were also concerns on the impact of job insecurity on mental health. “The impact of job insecurity and lack of employability has been proven to have a major impact on mental health, which in turn can lead to serious health and social problems.”
There is uncertainty over whether process engineers in particular can easily be employed in other sectors, especially if fewer skills and expertise are seen as transferrable. “I think for mechanical and electrical engineers a transition seems easy. As a process engineer I have no idea where to start with transitioning to green energy jobs. I think there needs to be clear support for those already working.”
Many of the comments also called on IChemE to do more. There was a general feeling that IChemE isn’t doing enough to help chemical engineers through the energy transition and isn’t doing enough to address climate change in general. There were also concerns that the Institution needs to take societal perception into account, to shift the focus to produce fewer oil and gas engineers in the future, and to be honest with university students about career paths involving oil and gas.
“I think there are many professionals in oil and gas like me who were made redundant because of the downturn and now had to transition into other industries. I think IChemE and professional organisations have to realise this and gauge ways to help these professionals,” said one respondent.
Another said: “With the emerging technologies like CCS and Digital Twin (Industry 4.0), I believe there are a lot of opportunities for chemical engineers. But having said that, there is a large gap between the workforce and the new emerging sectors of industry. There is almost no training available to enhance the skillset. So it is the duty of employers, policymakers and most importantly, institutions like IChemE to train and support the workforce.”
In response to the comments, Matt Stalker, Head of Events and Training at IChemE, said: “IChemE launches its Sustainability Hub in February 2022. Members will have free access to a suite of new online, on-demand sustainability courses throughout 2022. Our recent member engagement survey has also provided useful input on member development needs and will help impact our future CPD offerings.”
Claudia Flavell-While, Learned Society Director at IChemE, said: “The feedback from this survey shows that members want IChemE to do more to address climate change, which aligns with the Board of Trustees’ priorities, given their identification of climate change as a key focus area.
“IChemE set out its views in its position statement on climate change published in November 2020. In it we commit to a number of actions, both in terms of using our influence externally and to making changes in how we do business ourselves, and we are now working through the implementation of these actions. This includes sharing good practice and technical advice in supporting the energy transition, and highlighting the role chemical engineers play in addressing climate change – something we will particularly focus on in our communications around COP26. We will publish a more detailed update on our wider progress against the commitments in the position statement on climate change in the December/January issue of The Chemical Engineer.
“With regards to supporting members directly affected by the changes in the oil and gas industries with relevant information and advice, just in the last month we have published a range of materials for engineers wishing to transition from their current sector, which can be viewed at www.icheme.org/career.”
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