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Freelancers: Competency assessment and the challenges facing our industry

It's a fact that many people have embraced a post-truth reality, where experts are rejected. But it's refreshing to see that doesn't fly in the oil and gas industry. In fact here at Precise Consultants HQ, a number of our key freelancers have told us they want to bring even more expertise to the profession. However there is an issue.

CV not to hand? No problem, send us an email or give our hydrographic expert Peter Thompson a call on +44 (0) 203 325 0630.

“In a class of 24 guys who entered the profession there are six of us left,” says Senior Freelancer Mike Sheppard. “Unless it wakes up to why skilled people are leaving, this industry has no future.”

He’s been working both as staff and as freelancer for the last 16 years but says its lacked any clear career progression. “I often hoped there would be someone who would advise me on what way I should be going, but there has never been any feedback.”

That gap, where ambitious and talented people feel adrift – can cause problems, particularly in a cyclical industry where times can be as tough as they can be good. “I see that happening a lot with guys who work with fibre optics,” says fellow freelancer Daniel Gobbitt. “They’ve got talents which aren’t limited to working offshore. Yes you could argue, not everyone leaves but you’ve got to ask are we losing the very best talent? When you team that with the fact that many people are retiring, it’s a worrying situation.”

One solution might be competency certification for personnel. It certainly isn’t sexy, but done right, it could bring benefits to freelancers and companies alike.

“Recently we’ve been hearing more from our clients about competency,” Precise Consultants’ founder Peter Thompson tells us. “It was a topic before the oil price hit the floor and now it’s coming back as the industry gets busier. Everyone asks us how we can make sure our guys are good, and that’s the most important thing we can do – for us, for our clients and the people we send out.”

One of Precise Consultants’ overarching goals is to provide a rigorous quality assurance scheme for companies employing freelancers. Having worked offshore for a decade before forming the business, Peter knows a thing or two about the perils of working with someone whose CV enjoyed certain embellishments. “Having someone on the project who doesn’t know what he/she is doing can have such a significant impact on everything that goes on. It’s dangerous and there are massive implications for overall costs particularly if the others can’t pick up the slack and make up lost time. It’s not just a commercial disaster – it can be a serious drain on morale, which is precious when you’re stuck together for weeks. If one person can’t do the job, you don’t sleep, you constantly check their work, it’s hell for everyone.”

Although we’re starting to climb out of the oil price slump we’ve endured since 2014, freelancers face tremendous challenges. “Rates aren’t moving as fast as they have in previous periods – they’re still being depressed. Freelancers see that as their money effectively being taken away. Add to that the fact that if their contracts have been run out, they’ve lost their career progression and often in-house assessments aren’t recognised by other companies,” says Peter. “You’re left with the question – why stay in the oil and gas industry? This is where external assessments could come in. A qualification that is recognised across the industry as opposed to in-house systems which are by their very nature limiting would be a way to support the best people we need to keep.”

Richard Warburton founded MTCS, a competency assessing company, in 2004, his second after an initial venture in 1997. “Back then competency assessments were totally new. It was modelled off the Merchant Navy. People were reticent about doing it.  The experienced sea-dogs suddenly found themselves being asked to prove their competence and they weren’t keen.”

20 years on and oil and gas workers have grown up with people talking about competency. It’s no longer a suggestion – it’s essential. “The oil majors demand it,” says Richard. “They require to see every person they employ on a contract is technically competent, that they can operate the machines they say they can. Also, it gives them confidence to know that they’re competent in safety critical activities – a little like insurance. It minimises risk – that’s a huge benefit.

“But there’s also a change in attitude which I believe will move across the whole industry. Over the last couple of decades, whereas once freelancers were used as topper-uppers, companies now want to cut staff costs and so freelancers are a more significant section of the workforce on any given project. It’s leading to increased demand for freelancers to prove competence and they are increasingly coming forward to ask for this.”

Historically, carrying out external assessments during projects has been tricky. Richard shares anecdotes about supervisors who told freelancers, ‘You’re not part of the team’ and prevent any assessment taking place. “But that is not so much the case now. The clients feel they must do it now. It is still an issue with some but as reliance on freelancers continues, it will become more the norm, and that’s only going to benefit everyone.”

For years, many companies have done their own competency assessments but there is no standard. Mike worked for several companies at the beginning of his career and has first-hand experience of internal schemes. “Everyone wants the same thing – better skilled people – but there are probably too many schemes being set up. There was IMCA with a series of guidelines for what they think standards should be, and some tried to copy it but didn’t really follow it through. Some guys keep the log books, some don’t bother. Some companies don’t have anyone in charge overseeing the schemes and that makes life really tough for freelancers because no-one wants to give us feedback!”

Mike urges against recruitment agencies starting their own schemes in a race to offer something new. “Is every agency going to end up doing it? We’d be in the same place. What is the benchmark and who decides what is an acceptable standard? That’s the crux of this – we need standardisation like what exists with A-Levels for example. And then I think people could get on board with it, and help freelancers develop.”

Dan Gobbitt is more committed than most of us about gaining additional qualifications and accreditation. Not only does he hold a Masters from Plymouth University, he went on to become a Chartered Hydrographic Surveyor with RICS. “Look, if taking on external accreditation is going to keep me in work, I’ll be available for it. I like to be busy and have turnover. But that’s not to say I don’t have a few reservations about it. The scheme is only as good as the people who run it.”

Dan goes on to describe times when senior colleagues have refused to sign off people’s books because they didn’t meet the standard required, only for the person to locate someone who could sign it, and get away with it. “There are of course unscrupulous people in every walk of life. That’s why I liked RICS – there is no question about its legitimacy.”

There is another issue about having suitable accreditors. “I’m relatively senior, and don’t know who would be able to sign off for me. If this is going to take off, then external companies will need to invest in the right people and make sure it’s 100% above board. But ultimately – yes I do think it’s a good idea, and it’s a good time to introduce it when it’s quiet. That way when things pick up, and as companies become desperate for people, they’ll know they’re hiring the best.”

With warnings about skills gaps, Peter echoes that message and urges clients to think about how to hold on to valuable workers. “If you cut the day rate, but say on the other hand you’ll support people to progress to Grade 2 Surveyor and gain a qualification, that’s enough of a carrot and investment in their career for most people to stick around for longer than they would if nothing’s working out in their favour.”

Richard says that though freelancers bear the costs themselves, it’s worth considering. “You’re not just saying I can do that job – it’s also a way for you to progress in your career.” He’s assessed many who started with an induction training course for ROV, then worked through and some are offshore managers now. He says they’re great advocates and urges anyone who is interested to speak to someone who has been through the process. “Freelancers originally didn’t think they should have to pay the prices for assessment,” Richard tells us. “But now they see that in order to get the contract they need a qualification that works in a range of companies. Plus, they get paid more than contracted staff and with the ability to progress actually in their own hands, they’re on board with it.”

With a short-cycle production mind-set emerging in recent months comes predictions that it is the age of the freelancer. “Companies aren’t going to be hiring people on a permanent basis for at least three to five years,” Peter declares. “We’re not in a position yet where all our companies are asking for evidence, but it’s not a massive leap to think it’ll happen in the future. But I don’t want to see people signing up to ten different schemes. I’d like to see the leading authorities here coming together and finding a way that truly works for everyone involved.”