We asked offshore oil and gas workers about life in a declining industry – and their hopes for the future
Times are hard for offshore oil and gas workers, and many are looking for a way out of the industry. These skilled workers could build our renewable energy future. So why aren’t they getting the help they need?
Working on an oil rig in the North Sea is not for the faint-hearted.
Rig workers endure long stays away from home and family, cramped living quarters and dangerous engineering tasks to complete – all perched on a platform high above a roaring sea.
But for a while at least, the pay-off was worth it. For decades, the UK’s offshore oil and gas workers enjoyed a stable job, with great pay and benefits. Plus, there was the satisfaction of knowing your work is helping to power the country.
Lately though, all this has changed. With the oil price crash of 2014, the ever-growing urgency of climate change, and now the coronavirus crisis, working on oil rigs just isn’t what it used to be.
Offshore workers speak out
A survey of offshore oil and gas workers run by Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth Scotland and Platform has found that conditions for these highly skilled workers have got much worse in the last few years. Pay and training, job security and health and safety are all diminishing.
Four-fifths of workers who answered the survey are considering leaving the oil and gas business. And many have their eye on the growing offshore wind industry.
“‘The way the industry is treating their workers... is an absolute disgrace’”
The trouble is, offshore oil and gas is an industry in decline, companies are cutting costs and workers’ wages aren’t enough to cover re-skilling in other sectors. And the government isn’t offering much help.
We spoke to workers in the industry to get a sense of how their lives and work have been affected by oil price crashes and Covid-19, and to learn about their priorities for the looming energy transition away from oil and gas. Here’s what they had to say.
‘I know guys who have had two or three pay cuts over six months’
Morale is low in the North Sea offshore oil and gas industry. The sector has been dealt blow after blow – from the serious global oil price crash in 2014 to more recent declines due to Covid-19, which seriously hit demand. This puts its specialist workers in a vulnerable position.
Frank, a project manager in Inverness with over 40 years’ experience in the industry told us: ‘I know guys who have had two or three pay cuts over six months, no negotiations, nothing. If one engineering company cuts rates, all the others do too.’
These cuts are compounded by a complicated system of contracting and subcontracting. Drilling safety advisor Matt says, ‘There are few companies that have actual offshore staff, everyone is an agency worker. I have to pay for my own training and everything else, which used to be covered by my employer.’
One survey respondent wrote that ‘the oil companies have got away with everything but the workforce gets hammered, and that, ‘The way the industry is treating their workers… is an absolute disgrace and should not be allowed to happen.’
‘I’ve had it with oil and gas. Boom and bust and too many busts.’
Marine superintendent Dave describes how his Covid-19 furlough is now turning into a redundancy – but he’s got nowhere to go: ‘I’ve been applying everywhere, a lot of internal job applications as well, but I have barely been getting any interviews. The two interviews I’ve gotten have been for jobs two grades below mine.’ He’s close to losing his house, and calls it ‘the worst time of my life’.
Devastatingly, Matt reports hearing of workers that have taken their own lives, ‘because of the uncertainty.’
The pandemic has been the final straw for offshore workers like Mark, an electrical technician, who said ‘I’ve had it with oil and gas. Boom and bust and too many busts.’
Along with pay falling, workers report inspections being curtailed or cancelled due to Covid-19, arguably leading to slipping safety standards.
A welder at work in Leith’s Imperial Dry Dock in Leith, Scotland. (Photo by Robert Perry/Getty Images) 2018 Getty Images
‘I’m desperate to get into the renewables industry’
Matt reads a lot about developments in energy technology. ‘I believe a transition will happen whether we are prepared or not. It is inevitable. But will the industry see me out?’
Of the offshore oil and gas workers surveyed, 81.7% said they would consider moving to a job outside of the oil and gas industry – and 53% cite offshore wind particularly. But there’s no support for retraining, even though it would be relatively simple to reorient their specialist skills toward work on offshore wind farms.
Dave’s looking farther afield if he can’t stay afloat in the UK. ‘I guess my plan B is to move to Asia. I’d mostly go to look for jobs in renewables. I’m desperate to get into the industry.’
Information management lead Steve sees how working in a growing renewable energy industry could even revive the spirit of the early oil years: ‘To be in an industry that’s growing, versus one that’s declining, that’s really what it’s all about to me. The way people are with each other, the whole spirit. I’d like to see the renewables industry blow up and have it pick up some of the slack of the decline of oil and gas’.
‘Like anyone, I want to have fairly secure employment for the remainder of my working life and that’s just not going to be viable in the oil and gas industry.’
‘The government should offer grants [for retraining] as they do for people coming out of the military’
Mark, an electrical technician, sees a clear role for the government in offering support and opportunities: ‘There’s a lot of trades that could slot immediately into a wind farm and there are people who are really capable of progressing in wind power. The skills are just right. The government should offer grants as they do for people coming out of the military.’
“‘If he wanted the job he would have to spend at least £1,000 for offshore wind qualifications’”
The government is also accused of allowing companies to exploit workers for unnecessary retraining qualifications which they don’t even need.
As one interviewee explained: ‘At my last job in Thurso, Scotland, our safety guy had worked in oil for 15-20 years. He applied for a job on the Beatrice wind farm and it was going to be offshore. He was told he’d have to do the offshore survival course for wind. If he wanted the job he would have to spend at least £1,000 for offshore wind qualifications, but the main theory behind offshore survival is surviving a helicopter crash, and it’s the same helicopter if you are going offshore to a wind turbine or an oil rig.’
These experiences highlight the need to stop both the oil and wind industries from offloading training costs onto workers, and the further growth of exploitative certification companies.
What does the government need to do?
After suffering through the waxing and waning fortunes of the oil and gas industry, workers are feeling disillusioned, but nonetheless very much open to transitioning to a new industry with a more secure and prosperous future.
In the short term, supporting workers through crises like Covid-19 is the priority.
In the longer term, the UK desperately needs a proper strategy for a just transition away from fossil fuels. But the vast majority of workers haven’t even heard of a just transition yet, so there’s still a huge amount of work to do.
The government has an opportunity not only to do the right thing, but to use the world-leading skills from the country’s last great energy industry to power the next one. But unless they take responsibility for helping workers through the transition, that opportunity could slip away – along with the hopes of these skilled workers looking for a brighter future.
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