Targeting new talent for the North East's subsea sector

Ensuring there is a steady supply of skilled staff is vital to the future of the North East's rapidly growing subsea and offshore sectors, as Peter McCusker reports

Trainers James Thomas, left, and Paul Ambury with a delegation of Nigerian students
Trainers James Thomas, left, and Paul Ambury with a delegation of Nigerian students

The saying goes “get them while they’re young” and that is the aim of a recent initiative by companies in the North East offshore and manufacturing sectors.

In the space of two years members of industry body Subsea North East, along with other leading North East industrial businesses, have succeeded in spreading the message on engineering as a career choice to hundreds of primary schoolchildren.

From a standing start they have been into 77 schools and engaged with over 2,000 children in the North East, by connecting into the nationwide Primary Engineer scheme.

Andrew Esson is the managing director of North Shields business Quick Hydraulics. He is also the Subsea North East executive committee member overseeing its skills’ initiatives.

He said: “The scheme offers primary school teachers fresh insights into the teaching of the key STEM (science technology, engineering and maths) subjects, and introduces primary school pupils to engineering.

“The initial target was 50 North East schools and we have now passed that target and hope to increase it further.”

The scheme involves working with a specially-trained teacher at the school and supplying an engineer from the participating companies.

By Year Six the primary school pupils are involved in building four-wheeled motorised vehicles, while the younger pupils design and assemble a vehicle without a motor.

Subsea North East companies are also supporting next year’s Science and Engineering Week and Female Entrepreneur Week.

Quick Hydraulics managing director Andrew Esson
Quick Hydraulics managing director Andrew Esson
 

Esson continued: “We want to address the gender imbalance in engineering and eventually hope to see the sector reflect the overall profile of the working population.”

The subsea industry is a relatively new one – just 30 years old – and was borne out of the North Sea offshore oil and gas and global telecommunications industries.

It is also one that is growing rapidly. The UK industry is now worth £8.9bn – 45% of global market – and the worldwide market is expected to grow fourfold to £80bn by 2020, rivalling traditional offshore production within 15 years.

The North East currently accounts for 7% of the global market, producing annual revenues of £1.5bn. The regional subsea sector supports 15,000 jobs at over 50 companies and has grown 50% in just three years.

Subsea North East was established by some of the region’s key subsea businesses such as Wallsend-based SMD, Bel Valves of Newcastle and the IHC Engineering Business of Stocksfield.

The 15 core members of Subsea North East have all planned to grow their workforces by 20% this year from a total of 3,500 to 4,000 people.

Esson’s company Quick Hydraulics has increased its payroll by six to 34 in the last 10 month.

As well as engineers, it has recruited an operations manager and graduate economist Roland Wilkinson from Napier University in Edinburgh.

Members of Subsea North East regularly attend careers events at the region’s universities with events organised at Teesside and Newcastle in the coming months.

Esson continued: “The sector is dealing with the challenge of a lost generation of school-leavers, who due to the perceived decline of engineering in the North East, and poor careers guidance at schools, deserted engineering in favour of service sector careers. 

“And yet, the region’s subsea sector is seeing a boom in activity in the North Sea and elsewhere in the world, with all the region’s subsea manufacturers seeking to recruit skilled engineers at all levels. 

“Within Subsea North East we are seeking to address these challenges in a number of ways.  In the short term we are seeking opportunities for military to subsea career crossovers to attract skilled engineers from the armed forces into the industry. 

“In the medium term we are working to raise our sector’s profile amongst the local universities to ensure that graduates are aware of the range of exciting career opportunities the subsea sector has to offer. 

“In the long term we are also working at secondary school, and also primary school level to ensure that STEM oriented school children understand what engineering, and particularly subsea engineering has to offer.

“We have a fantastic diversity of exciting job roles and career opportunities within the subsea sector, and with many decades of subsea exploration to come we have a fantastic opportunity for the subsea sector to become to bedrock of the region’s manufacturing base, as long as we can attract the best young talent into the industry.”

For school-leavers and those wanting to switch careers and improve their skills a new facility was launched in the south of the region earlier this year.

The Centre for Subsea Technology Awareness, Training and Education – C-STATE – was opened in Darlington in January and one of the few of its kind in the UK.

It was created to address the growing skills gap in the subsea sector, by providing a platform for specialist training and education.

Likewise, Newcastle College’s Energy Academy, which is based on North Tyneside close to the region’s subsea cluster, has been a success.

Launched in the autumn of 2011 the Energy Academy started with 100 students and has doubled student numbers.

Whilst initially being targeted at the offshore renewable sector it has tailored its courses to support the growth of the offshore oil and gas sector too.

Subsea UK chief executive Neil Gordon
Subsea UK chief executive Neil Gordon
 

Members of industry body Subsea North East are also partnering national body Subsea UK in its Target initiative.

Neil Gordon, chief executive of Subsea UK, said: “Subsea offers a wide range of career opportunities and our Subsea Target initiative, which launched in June 2013, is helping individuals looking to move into this dynamic sector.

“North East England has a wealth of skilled workers thanks to its strong engineering heritage and we would encourage those individuals to see if Subsea Target can help them in the next phase of their career.

 “Overall, Subsea Target has three strands; a short-term approach which helps companies meet their immediate skills’ needs; a medium-term approach which attracts graduates and apprentices into the industry and a long-term approach which focuses on educating pupils about the wealth of careers in subsea while also encouraging the uptake of STEM subjects.

“Through this initiative we are working with both individuals and companies to grow our talent pool and close the skills gap.

“By doing this we can ensure that our sector remains competitive with the right resources to exploit the significant growth potential both at home and internationally.”

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