Skills gaps are eternal. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be addressed effectively, said Scott Kerr, chief executive of Mintra Group.
Mr Kerr believes the big challenge is figuring out how the technology can help facilitate and speed up the process of plugging those gaps.
Oslo-headquartered Mintra is a human resources, competence and training specialist backed by The Riverside Company.
It recently completed the acquisition of training technology firm Atlas Knowledge, bolstering its ability to provide training for clients.
The takeover means Mintra can offer 500 courses in 20 languages to more than 1,000 customers across 130 countries.
It also boosts Mintra’s headcount in Aberdeen to around 75.
Further expansion is a distinct possibility, including in north-east Scotland.
Mr Kerr said: “The North Sea is our heartland. We will always want to grow here.
“A lot of skills and technology are coming from this area which we can deploy in this geography and through our international network.”
Mintra’s training portal has almost a million registered users employed in oil and gas, maritime, aviation, construction and energy.
Founded in 1996, the company’s offering might be of interest to some of the new North Sea entrants who lack the internal resources of the majors.
Thousands of job losses during the downturn and large numbers of workers retiring, or getting close to retirement, have prompted dire warnings about skills shortages.
Mr Kerr feels the issue is important, but he isn’t getting too worked up.
He said: “I’ve been in the industry for a long time and since I started there have always been skills gaps.
“It’s a common issue we deal with. Part of that is driven by the age of the workforce as people leave, and by technology.
“As we introduce new technology, we introduce requirements for new skills.
“As an industry which includes universities and skills centres we can solve that but it requires a focused effort.”
Part of the challenge, or opportunity, comes from the perception that people do not learn as they did 15 years ago.
The requirements for competency are getting more demanding.
“Look at rigs,” Mr Kerr said. “I started my career in 1979 in oil. At that time rigs had 80 people on board, mostly working with heavy equipment. Today, it’s still 80 people a lot of the time, but competency is different, so how do we manage the process?
“The cycle time for training has become shorter. You do not have long apprenticeship periods. When you go offshore, you are expected to know what you’re doing almost straight away. We see a lot of opportunity there.”
“Gamification”, as Mr Kerr calls it, is one way of making the most of technology, and forms a key plank of Mintra’s e-learning offering.
It involves using “gaming” theory to help people retain training lessons. In different scenarios, participants must prove they can react quickly and appropriately based on the processes they have learned.
That can help blow away any cobwebs found on crew who have the knowledge, but are returning to work rusty, after two or three weeks away. The offshore environment is not one where workers can afford to be caught “on the hop”.
Mintra’s approach should fit well as more tech-savvy people enter the jobs market.
Mr Kerr said: “Today we can put people in simulators to test and evaluate their ability to handle situations without putting them in danger.
“So the skills gap is a challenge which is driven by a number of things, but together we can solve and are solving it, even today. I don’t see it as something that can’t be solved.”
He believes businesses must put competency, HR and rota planning at the core of what they do to drive efficiency, rather than setting them to the side.
Mintra has a system which lets people manage their own training records, which is an advantage if they work for more than one company, or switch between employers regularly.
The firm is also working with Robert Gordon University on a project aimed at stopping people cheating on their remote training.
They are considering the use of facial recognition and typing-speed measurement to ensure the person undertaking the training is, in fact, the person who signed up.
Mintra’s product for crew rotation planning and management also sounds handy.
Offshore installation managers can use it to keep tabs on the competency of the crew they have on board, thus helping them plan for different eventualities.
Mr Kerr said Mintra is always looking at how operators can make sure they’ve got the best, most suitable workforce at sea at any time.
“If we look at operating expenditure, more than half is usually to do with people – deploying them, training them,” he said.
“You might think about heavy industry and steel but oil and gas is a people business. Efficiency comes down to how companies make sure they have the most competent workforce available offshore to do the work. We focus on how to train and define the competency needed to run the equipment and respond to situations.
“We’re operating in a high risk business, so we have to make sure people have the capability to do the work.”
The suitability of rotas has been a thorny subject in North Sea industry for some time now.
When oil prices dropped, there was a tendency to switch to equal-time, three week rotas to lower costs.
Following a general upturn in their financial performance, some operators are considering a return to schedules which only require crew to be offshore two weeks at a time.
Mr Kerr said all rotas are workable, though each has pluses and minuses.
“There’s a challenge with any rota, because people are always moving on and off and that has to be managed carefully,” he said. “The more rotas there are, the more complicated things become, so we need to make sure we’re using digital solutions to manage the situation.
“It’s difficult for a rig manager to know who’s there at any time and what skills they have – who can do what’s required when a certain situation arises.
“And we need to know how many days someone has been offshore. What’s their limit?
“I may need someone with a specific competency but I need to know if they have been offshore too long. Do they need a break? We can help with that.”
Mr Kerr also thinks the general shift towards online reporting of financial details in recent years can help take the sting out of changes to off-payroll working rules.
The legislation, known as IR35, was introduced to stop contractors who are effectively employees “disguising” themselves as freelancers to pay less tax.
In the 2018 Budget, the UK Government said responsibility for operating off-payroll working rules would move from individual contractors to the large and medium sized organisations engaging them from April 2020, broadly mirroring the public sector.
The North Sea oil sector is thought to be among the industries that will be most drastically affected by the changes, as many individual contractors operate via intermediaries, such as personal service companies.
A number of accountants have warned that IR35 could impact flexibility and skills availability, while adding complexity and cost to end users, if they are not prepared.
Mr Kerr is stoic on the subject: “Most governments are moving towards automatic reporting.
“Governments can change requirements a lot, but by having a structured approach, those changes can be implemented quickly and smoothly.”