iPhone, iRobot, iCloud – should iWorry?

As digitalisation re-shapes UK oil and gas, assessing changing skills requirements will be critical to help future-proof the sector, writes Paul de Leeuw

Everywhere you look, change is happening: in politics, in business and in the way we all live and work. In recent years, virtually every industrial sector around the world has experienced rapid and sometimes devastating change. Technology and new ways of working have transformed industries and business: Amazon has changed the retail sector; Uber and Lyft are changing the personal transport business; and Airbnb is materially impacting the hospitality industry.

Similar change is inevitable across the energy sector. Technology, innovation and the transition to a lower carbon future will reshape the oil and gas industry during the next few decades. Against this backdrop, we will need an increasingly adaptable, flexible and technology-enabled workforce, with new high-tech skills becoming part of day-to-day life in the energy sector.

Energy skills body OPITO, in partnership with Robert Gordon University (RGU), recently published the UK Workforce Dynamics Review. This highlights the changing skills and capability requirements for the UK oil and gas industry during the next 20 years. In the UK alone, more than 40,000 new people are likely to be required to join the industry in that time, with 10,000 of those needing to be recruited for technology and innovation roles that do not currently exist.

The UK oil and gas industry will need to recruit 40,000 people over the next 20 years, including 10,000 in new posts such as data science and robotics

Digital upskilling

Although traditional disciplines such as subsurface, operations and projects continue to be key, there will also be significant new demand for expertise in areas such as low carbon energy, data science, data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, robotics, material science, change management, remote operations and cybersecurity. In addition, a substantial proportion of the workforce will need to be upskilled, providing a key role for training providers, vocational institutes and universities to help futureproof the skills and capabilities in the sector.

It’s not just the skills base that will change – business models are likely to change, too. It is expected that the industry will see an increased separation between the provision of expertise and actual execution. Many of the tasks currently done on location will be managed from onshore centres in the future, with the execution happening on-site by multi-skilled operatives. This is already happening to some extent through the application of remote operation centres. It is expected, however, that this will accelerate significantly during the next decade.

Specifically, the impact of AI, machine learning and predictive algorithms will have the potential to transform the sector. The combination of real-time data analytics, AI and cognitive reasoning will shift insight and decision-making deeper into organisations, which will likely require a significant upskilling for supervisory, management and leadership positions.

A new way of working

The application of new technology will also enable far more adaptable and agile work environments, in stark contrast to traditional, matrix-type organisations. Teams will need to be far more flexible and nimble compared to what we see today and will be formed around revenue, value or customer-specific opportunities. When a task is completed, such teams can easily be dissolved and reconstituted around future value or revenue prospects.

Although many will benefit from the opportunities created by the next industrial revolution, it has the potential to be disruptive for others. Going forward, equipping and upskilling people to adjust to the rapidly changing environment will likely be one of the top priorities for the energy sector.

History has shown that technology continuously changes the way we work, but also that after every industrial revolution, more jobs are created – even if many of the new jobs will be in different disciplines or practice areas. This technology revolution will be no exception. By Professor Paul de Leeuw, Director, Oil and Gas Institute, Robert Gordon University