Matthew High looks at the challenges that industry-wide personnel shortages are posing to ROV operation and development in the oil and gas industry, and at the methods that are being used to address the problem.
As the subsea oil and gas industry is on the brink of an enormous growth period in the coming years, and with the exploration parameters being stretched ever further, there is a steep rise in the demand for skilled remotely operated vehicle (ROV) personnel. Furthermore, with a large proportion of the people employed in ROVrelated roles close to retirement, and deepwater exploration and diver-less intervention becoming increasingly common, never before has it been more vital to inject fresh blood into the industry.
Importantly, steps are already being taken to address the problem – ROV manufacturers are successfully integrating the latest software technology and control systems to make the operational demands easier for an ROV crew to manage. Alongside this, a number of specialised ROV training facilities have emerged, providing in-house, industry recognised training courses and competency schemes to those wishing to move into this exciting sector.
One such training school is operated by Global Marine Systems Ltd in the UK, and provides practical and theoretical International Maritime Contractors Association (IMCA) aligned courses that teach skills ranging from operations through to repair and maintenance – all of which are vital to modern ROV offshore operations.
John Davies, subsea construction manager at Global Marine, and one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the training school, believes that such steps are certainly necessary: “In the last two to five years, one of the key problems that we have been facing has been the lack of new personnel entering the sector – partly as a consequence of a large proportion of the established and experienced staff moving between the major companies chasing better wages and prospects.
“The fact that is being missed by a number of employers, and something that we really need to understand, is that there is an enormous amount of new, fresh talent out there with the relevant skills and capabilities for the jobs required,” he says. “It really is highly important to attract the people with the right experience and show them that there is a whole new exciting career waiting out there.”
With more than ten years experience working with ROVs at Global Marine, John knows first hand the level of knowledge required to understand and operate modern machines. Not only does he have hands, on experience of - being in charge of an ROV crew in an operational environment as a senior submersible engineer, his progression through the business means that his latest role of Technology subsea construction manager sees him in charge of ROV operations and personnel and project management, alongside working with project engineers, and undertaking operational support tasks.
It is this experience that allows John to identify the technical, and operational changes that have necessitated such intense training: “Certainly as ROV technology has developed over the last 20 years the entire scope of training and recruitment has changed. A modern system is such a complex electronic, mechanical and hydraulic machine that you have to have people with a broad range of in-depth skills to successfully operate it. This is something that I can only see continuing - as ROVs are forced to operate deeper, and in harsher conditions, having the right crew with the correct skills, and the knowledge to maintain a working ROV will be vital to any operation. This is why the emphasis must be on new recruits because as the technology advances those currently operating the systems will be continually stretched in terms of their capabilities.”
In such a climate, the focus should surely be on the manufacturers of the latest ROVs – and whether they are taking into account the training/recruitment problem. Halvor Snelligen, one of the leading ROV experts at Nexans, with more than 20 years experience, explains that it is something that companies are acutely aware of: “Nexans is a leading manufacturer and supplier of ROV umbilicals and tethers for vessels worldwide, and we definitely understand the demands on the operator, and the range of skills needed when deploying our products – in simple terms, the crew has to be able to successfully operate the ROV to make the entire offshore project work. One of the main problems is not necessarily finding the right crew member with the correct skills, it is about the numbers of new personnel available as the modern ROV crew needs a very wide range of skills and competencies, rather than just skilled pilots.”
Elaborating, Halvor explains that the latest technology actually makes the piloting and control of the ROV simpler, and that this is only one of a number of important areas that needs to be taught: “In the early stages of ROV operations, certainly when I was first involved around 20 years ago, the requirement was for a highly experienced offshore crew with a very high level of competence in electronics and mechanical systems, whereas today this is dramatically reduced. The chief reason is that today the technology is predominantly based around software with far less components that need controlling and servicing. In this sense, it really is down to the skill of the crew as to how effective the ROV is. You will quite often see the same unit working very well for one client, but having poor results for another.”
John echoes these sentiments: “The technology has evolved a great deal in my time with ROVs, but the advent of computer software has certainly changed our approach to training. Many of the important control functions, such as fault finding and diagnosis have become a lot simpler, and there is a great deal more in place to help the operators successfully maintain the system in the best possible manner. Rather, much of the success relies upon an understanding of the overall system, and how to obtain the best results by maintaining that system in the most effective manner.”
For this reason Global Marine’s training programme provides a three-week course that covers a broad range of skills – both theoretical and practical – from workshop tutorials and simulator work, through to practice operations on Global Marine’s very own Sea Eye Falcon, an Observation Class ROV.
John expands: “We have set up a true dedicated training facility that provides IMC aligned training for induction pilot and technician training, which is the initial, baseline programme for anyone wanting a career in ROVs. We may start with an induction into the various types and classes of ROV, with a look at the different types of control systems, safe systems of work in the offshore environment and work packages that are common in the industry, before moving on to more pilot specific practical training on the facility’s own work class ROV simulator and practically on the work bench. This can include learning how to splice fibre-optic connectors, complete in-line joints on electrical cable harnesses together with an introduction to hydraulic systems and their components.”
Aside from operational use, the rapid pace of the technological development in ROV production means that companies such as Nexans must be equally aware of finding development and production staff with the correct skills. Halvor explains: “For a few years we were very worried about what would happen, and whether the skills shortage felt across the industry would affect us. The ROV market is expanding rapidly, with a number of contractors building high volumes of units so it is very important that you continue to work hard to make ROVs and associated equipment an attractive arena to work in for the future.”
Whilst the training programmes offered by Global Marine and other similar companies may not provide an immediate solution to the skills shortage facing the industry, they are presently one of the best ways of ensuring that personnel with the relevant knowledge and competencies are available for the coming years.
Halvor agrees: “I think the fact that we are starting to see many more professional ROV training schools is an excellent development for the future of the business. They are extremely useful, and with companies investing further in simulator tools and in-house training there will hopefully be an abundance of base knowledge for the future. Nexans is especially keen to participate in the training process and we have developed courses on how to make the best use of our products”.
Perhaps most importantly, John believes that although we cannot accurately predict the influx of new personnel to the industry in coming years, what Global Marine has in place will certainly alleviate the problem: “We are not doing this for competitive gain, we are looking to help the industry move forwards, and it really is beneficial for those looking to move into the ROV sector. For the vast majority of people who come here, graduating the training course gives them a real differentiator to others applying for similar jobs. The success rate of Global Marine training graduates thus far has been extremely high, so hopefully we can continue to demonstrate that we have a service here that will benefit the industry, and will enable companies to train and further develop both new and existing personnel.”
Ultimately, there is no sure-fire solution to solving an industry-wide problem that shows no signs of abating as yet. Training schools and courses can certainly provide a valuable tool in giving people the basic levels of knowledge needed to operate ROVs, but the basic problem still lies in attracting people to enter the industry in the first instance – it is only then that such solutions can have positive benefits. As the pattern of exploration moves to deeper waters and more difficult environments, the need for ROV crews that are capable of operating the latest machines certainly looks set to increase for the foreseeable future.
GLOBAL MARINE SYSTEMS LTD
Global Marine Systems Ltd is a marine technology and engineering company that specialises in the maintenance of submarine telecom cables.
For further information please visit: www.globalmarinesystems.com
With energy as the basis of its development, Nexans, the worldwide leader in the cable industry, offers an extensive range of cables and cabling systems. The Group is a global player in the infrastructure, industry, building and Local Area Network markets. The company provides a range of state-of-the-art ROV cable laying solutions, including its latest Capjet and Spider models, to the power infrastructures and oil & gas industries.
For further information please visit: www.nexans.com
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