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Monday, 20 August, 2001, 19:39 GMT 20:39 UK
UK oil rigs face recruitment crisis
An oil rig being towed into the North Sea
A new 100-metre high rig is towed into the North Sea
UK oil explorers face an acute skills shortage in the North Sea.

This could be a stumbling block for expansion plans that have been prompted by the high price of oil.

Oil exploration is increasing, but recruitment is not.

About 40% of the North Sea's offshore workforce is aged over 40, and that number will rise to 60% in the next five years, a spokesman for BP's Aberdeen office told BBC News Online.

Meanwhile, BP has increased its activities in the North Sea by about 10% compared with five years ago, he said.

Target Silicon Glen

The oil giant operates five more rigs than five years ago - each one needing 200 workers on average - and has added "a lot of other activity that doesn't need such obvious infrastructure".

"The problem is there is more exploration going on... so employers can't get enough people to man the rigs," confirms Danny Carrigan of the Amalgamated Engineering & Electrical Union.

The AEEU has teamed up with the oil companies and the Scottish Executive to direct Scotland's unemployed towards the North Sea.

With UK unemployment at a 26-year low of 3.2%, that is not easy, but they are targeting the Silicon Glen area of Scotland where manufacturing workers have recently lost jobs in electronics companies like Motorola.

"There are certain parts of Scotland where the unemployment rate is running at five to six per cent", said Mr Carrigan.

Employees' market

Numbers employed by the North Sea oil industry peaked at 36,500 in 1990, then fell to a low of 19,000 in 1999.

But sustained high prices for crude oil have prompted fresh exploration and numbers on the rigs have risen to about 21,000.

The most acute skills shortage is for technicians, "people who are able to adapt, who are able to understand drawings", said Mr Carrigan, though there is also a lack of general labourers and senior managers.

Training a technician can take up to three years so the industry has set a target to get 150 new maintenance and production technicians into training during 2001, said a spokeswoman for the UK Offshore Operators Association.

The BP spokesman estimated the shortage of rig workers at 1,000 industry-wide.

Enticing wages

Technicians can earn between 37,000 and 44,000 a year, with senior maintenance staff collecting up to 50,000.

"It's an employees' market", stressed Graham Tran of the AEEU in Aberdeen.

However, hours are long, with workers putting in 164 hours of 12 hour shifts in a fortnight. After that, they get two weeks' leave, a rota pattern that means they work only 26 weeks in total.

Employers are targeting graduates through college roadshows but many have been put off by the industry's image as "dirty and polluting", said Mike Salter, chief operating officer of Abbot Group and chairman of Pilot, a joint industry and government body to maximise the potential of the North Sea.

But the slowdown in the world economy may also prove an obstacle to recruitment, with the industry seen as insecure and overly dependent on high oil prices which a major slowdown could reverse.

North Sea benchmark crude fell six cents on Monday to $24.66 a barrel, well below its $30 high on 7 February and at the bottom end its price range during 2001 so far.

The BBC's Dharshini David
"Following a decline in oil prices, Opec are set to limit supply for the third time this year"
Oil market economist Heather Rowland
"At the moment the US and Opec are talking the same language - stability"
See also:

21 Aug 01 | Scotland
Oil production hits six-year low
13 Jul 01 | Business
Oil boss brands Opec 'greedy'
08 May 01 | Business
Oil firms: Excessive profits?
04 Jun 01 | Business
Q&A: What now for petrol prices?
26 Jul 01 | Business
US and EU warn Opec
29 Jul 01 | Education
Drive to tackle skills shortage
08 Aug 01 | Business
Treasury considers oil windfall tax
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