A shortage of engineers in fuel industries could be an opportunity for skilled Kiwis

Australian oil and gas projects are creating an increasing need for skilled labour, says the managing director of the Resource Channel, Jody Elliott.

The website is an employment news resource that tracks projects, reports on awarded contracts and gives employment-related advice and information.

Although science has identified the contribution that burning fossil fuels makes to climate change, oil and gas remain important sources of energy for the world, and there are no immediate alternatives on a large enough scale. So it is unlikely that these energy industries will experience the downturn that Australian mining went through last year.

"While there are still a number of projects in the mining pipeline many of those have either been halted or delayed," Elliott says.


Projects in Western Australia include liquefied gas (LNG) developments by Gorgon, Wheatstone and Pluto, and oil developments by BHP Billiton and Pyrenees.

"What's not commonly known is that Queensland is having just as big a boom in oil and gas as WA; there are four major projects on Curtis Island off Gladstone," Elliott said.

"Combined with Northern Territories [projects] they are generating thousands of jobs in construction."

But they are not, she says, generating thousands of jobs in operations, which are highly skilled roles requiring at least 10 years' work experience in a relevant trade or field related to oil or refinery.

"If you've never worked in an industry related to mining, oil or gas or you don't have a trade or a raft of the relevant tickets you probably are aiming for what we call unskilled jobs, like cleaner, but you are competing against thousands of Australians."

And, she says, forget about truck driving, which is the role people usually think of when the media report that the industry is screaming out for skills.

The construction workforce requires all trades, from painters, carpenters through to mechanical pipe fitters, electricians, riggers and scaffolders.

"If you are a painter you might have worked on a number of construction sites. [You are] familiar with the health and safety requirements, used to working in larger teams and extremes of weather," Elliott says, recommending that workers check Australian legislation and standards.

She recommends people research and target companies that are building camps for Gorgon and other large projects. Location can also make the difference between getting a job or not. Being on the spot, living in a community and networking improve the odds.

"If you are living in New Zealand you have exactly the same chance as someone living in Sydney [applying for work in WA]."

Recruiters had stringent screening requirements, "and it can come down to how close you live to the source of work."

Roles for engineers were growing as experienced people retired, and experts in specialist fields such as hydrology were always in demand.

"Around the globe more than 50 per cent of all engineers working in the oil and gas sector are due to retire in the next five to 10 years. It's a massive turnover and we don't have the experienced people coming through."

At the Australasian Oil and Gas Exhibition in Perth last month, Mark Guest from OilCareers.com said oil and gas employers were having to lure retirees back into the workforce to keep up with project demands because of a shortage of new workers.

Financial incentives for this pushed up the industry's cost base.

The Australian National Apprenticeship programme is seeking to address skill shortages and is fast-tracking adult workers through an 18-month training, something New Zealanders could be eligible for, Elliott said.

"Large construction companies such as Bechtel, which are looking for thousands of people to work on the oil and gas projects in WA and Queensland have signed on hundreds of adult apprentices. Certainly all the companies have very robust graduate programmes."

To young New Zealand engineering students finishing their degrees, she says "pack your kit bag and get yourself over here in the Christmas holidays and get some work experience. Nine times out of ten we convert those people into employees at the end of graduation."

A representative of the Faculty of Engineering, Computing and Mathematics at the University of Western Australia says engineers in the oil and gas industries enjoy six-figure salaries, but candidates need a bachelor's or master's degree in disciplines such as mechanical engineering, civil engineering, chemical engineering, environmental engineering, electrical and electronic engineering or petroleum engineering.

"Those with bachelor's degrees in other disciplines such as science or mathematics should also consider taking postgraduate study - a master's degree - in one of these engineering disciplines to prepare themselves."

The University of Western Australia has a programme of preliminary study for those with non-engineering undergraduate degrees to help them convert their skills and become professionally accredited engineers.

Students with PhDs or master's by research degrees from research-intensive universities are also in demand.

"Candidates should do their homework when seeking institutions who work alongside the big players of the oil and gas industry e.g. Shell, Chevron and Woodside, to further the boundaries of knowledge in the offshore, pipeline design, geotechnical, LNG, petroleum and subsea technology fields," Elliott said.

Recent graduates with relevant degrees could look for graduate training programmes to build their professional experience.

She said engineering in the 21st century required people with "dynamic" project management skills, vision and aptitude for solving the diverse challenges that the oil and gas industries can create.

"The ability to think outside the box, to work in teams, have a keen social conscience and natural leadership and great communication skills are all assets that employers will be looking for."

Elliott said all companies had environmental and health and safety departments and these areas were growing employment bases.

"Every organisation and every project has to comply with and if possible exceed, very stringent environmental requirements even before the final investment decision is reached."