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Paths to industry put to the test

The Telegraph
Whether it’s with an energy giant or a specialist operator, the opportunities are out there

Every month, engineer Nurzhan Kairbayev is contacted by several headhunters. He works as a reservoir specialist at an oil and gas consultancy and holds a masters in petroleum engineering from Imperial College London. He is just what the industry is crying out for — an engineer with experience to work on upstream and downstream operations. A nationwide science and engineering skills shortage is even more acute within oil and gas than in other sectors, due to a crash in the price of oil in 1986, which saw a slump in hiring for more than a decade. Experienced staff are now retiring without immediate replacements, and graduates are being snapped up for accelerated training. “We’re in a big growth cycle. There will be good opportunities for new people in all areas of oil and gas for the next 10 years,” says Ford Brett, who last year served as chairman of the Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE) Talent Council. But competition for prestigious graduate training schemes with the energy giants — including BP, Exxon Mobil and Shell — remains tough, with up to 100 graduates chasing each position. Some, like Kairbayev, opt to work at smaller service companies and niche consultancies, confident they will be given more responsibility and exposed to a greater variety of projects. “At the larger operators, you’re a ‘graduate’ for three years or more. In a smaller company, you get variety and complexity — your learning can be exponential,” says Kairbayev, who worked on five different projects in his first year, and recently travelled to Kazakhstan to evaluate an oil field. Most graduates, however, initially set their sights on energy giants, recognising their kudos in an industry focused on training. “Graduate schemes are virtually the equivalent of a masters degree,” says Brett, who is also chief executive of PetroSkills, which delivers wall-to-wall training for the sector, including 15 to 25 weeks for the larger graduate employers, as well as training for smaller or more specialist companies. According to Brett, knowledge and experience are even more critical in this highly technical sector. “The oil industry isn’t something you go into with a wrench in hand; the more you know, the more valuable you are,” he says. Larger companies reject the idea that graduates are held at arm’s length from the business. “Our feedback is that they are overwhelmed with the opportunities they have when they join,” says Suzy Style, head of UK graduate recruitment at BP, which hires more than 200 graduates in the UK for its Challenge training programme every year, many of whom have completed BP internships as undergraduates. New hires rotate around the business and might find themselves offshore on a North Sea platform or working on motorsport engine test cells, developing oil formulations for Formula 1 cars. BP also has a leading graduate retention rate within the industry, adds Style. After three years of training in the company’s upstream division, graduates can continue with a further seven years of formal training to help them reach the next level of seniority, which brings with it opportunities to travel. Many smaller or specialist companies now operate graduate training schemes to plug their skills gaps. Some of these companies are benefiting from a trend by bigger players to outsource parts of the business, such as research and development, multidisciplinary engineering and environmental consulting, according to Dr Ben Herbert, director of research and environment at consultancy Stopford Energy and Environment. “While that inevitably limits opportunities for people looking to enter the industry at a junior level with a big company, there are positives,” he says. “Stopford offers recruits the chance to work across a host of different sectors and projects, allowing them to gain valuable and varied experience.” Don’t rule out working for smaller organisations at any stage, agrees Andrew Falconer, director of careers and employability at business management specialist GSM London, which offers degrees in oil and gas management. “It’s easy to be seduced by the savvy marketing of the large energy firms,” he says. “The reality is that only seven per cent of jobs in the sector are with these big players.” Most jobs are in the supply chain and specialist consultancies. Company preferences often come down to a simple lifestyle decision — with a greater number of regional centres, multinationals expect their staff to be mobile, while smaller companies need graduates who are happy to stay put once they have relocated to where the job is. “Even if you fancy working in a corporate London office, your career may start in the suburbs of Aberdeen, in the East of England or overseas,” says Falconer. Whatever your choice, he adds, you should be aware of the importance of networking and building industry contacts at the many annual conferences that take place in the UK and abroad. “The interrelationship between companies can be staggering — seminars can help you understand the complexity of the industry

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