Opinion: Firms must strive to attract workers back to sector as skills shortage looms

Katie Williams of Pinsent Masons
Katie Williams of Pinsent Masons
Opinion by Katie WilliamsPinsent Masons

Pinsent Masons Aberdeen Head of Office, Katie Williams, is relocating to Western Australia where she will build the law firm’s Asia Pacific employment practice from Perth.

In the nine years she has been based in Aberdeen she says the oil and gas sector has made huge strides forward in employment best practice but the industry will have to work hard to attract new recruits following the energy price downturn.

“One very positive aspect which I have witnessed in the last few years is the increasing awareness and commitment to diversity and inclusion within the oil and gas industry. Broadly speaking there has been an awakening of the industry to the relevance of these issues, and some companies have not just become aware but have made a radical cultural shift in the way they deal with these matters.

“It is true, there is still a lot of work to be done, but what has been really noticeable about this sector has been the speed of change of mindset and approach over the last couple of years.

“Almost in direct contraction to this, over those same years there has been a much more transactional approach to HR management and much less focus on strategic work which ensures businesses have the right employment processes and structures in place to prosper.

“By transactional HR I mean it is apparent that HR teams have been forced to be reactive, dealing with the basics such as implementing existing polices, handling disciplinary and grievance issues, and in some cases rapid restructuring. This has meant strategic HR has suffered, with little focus on the holistic aspects of people management such as looking after talent progression, rewards, recognition, motivation and engagement.

“Abandon maybe too strong a word but those types of HR functions have either diminished or been put on hold. This is completely understandable because of the massive challenges many faced in the downturn where actions were being taken just to ensure survival.

“However, now it appears a recovery is underway and we are enjoying a more stable oil price, it would be to everyone’s advantage to see a resurgence in proactive and strategic HR. In the longer term, it is important for the success of the businesses in the oil and gas sector to look across the board at all of those issues, to make sure they have the right skills within their organisations, to make sure they are engaged with their employees, that they are attractive employers to work for, and that they are developing talent all the time, otherwise we will compound the future problems of skills shortages, competition on wages and related factors which impact on the cost base and on efficiency.

“With thousands of people leaving the energy sector over the last four years the industry has to work hard to make a compelling proposition for workers to return and the challenge for employers is to make themselves attractive to new entrants. Certainly, the younger generation will remember the volatility of the last couple of years and there here has got to be significant benefits on offer if they are to embrace that and consider a career in oil and gas.

“Longer term challenges for the industry, and they are not alone in this, will be the way in which the workforce will have to be reorganised in the next 10 years or so as technological advances introduce increased digitisation, automation and robotic working. In theory, the oil and gas sector should be better placed to deal with change as it is an industry which is inherently entrepreneurial, it is good at adapting to constant technological improvements, and having gone through the downturn many companies are now more open-minded about doing things differently.