Worried About Mature Asset Integrity? Try Your Ageing Workforce

I recently attended an oil and gas conference where the sexagenarian Director of Pipeline Integrity for a large US gas distribution company was delivering a presentation on mature assets. Some way through the presentation, he blurted out the immortal lines: "So, we're talking about mature assets? I'M a mature asset! And I need replacing properly!"

Funny? Yes. Flippant? Undoubtedly. But what better way to out a troubling home truth that through humour and self-deprecation?

Three years ago, the US Census Bureau's An Ageing World: 2008 study proclaimed that "in fewer than 10 years, older people will outnumber children for the first time in history", and 2010 statistics from the World Economic Forum project that "by 2030, 19% of Americans, 23% of Europeans and 31% of Japanese will be older than 65, the traditional retirement age."

An ageing workforce is, of course, concomitant with an ageing global population, but it does seem for some years that the oil and gas sector has been a step ahead of game, outdoing the majority of the global industry sectors with respect to the seniority of its employees.

Although the average age of North Sea oil and gas professionals was 40.4 years-old in 2010, this is anomalous in the overall global picture of the industry. It is more than a little concerning that in a sector based around knowledge retention and technical innovation, more than 50 per cent of currently employed engineers will have retired by 2015.

That last statistic showcases one thing in particular: that there is going to be a glut of talent leaving the industry without the requisite influx of fresh graduates to fill in the knowledge gap. If unsolved, then in the next 20 years the consequences of generational shift promise to be catastrophic for the continuity of knowledge that is vital for the smooth running of assets across the globe.

An extract from the UK HSE's Information Sheet 4/2009 presents us with one telling phrase: "Ageing is not about how old your equipment is; its about what you know about its condition, and how that is changing over time." I would add to that, the fact that knowledge alone is not the critical factor - we must also think about its application in a practical setting.

Remove those in the know about how to deal with ageing assets and you diminish the reactive capability of the industry to assess risk, with the ultimate outcome of making hypothetical crisis scenarios into plausible realities.

Perhaps it won't surprise you to hear that the aforementioned Director of Pipeline Integrity also said that: "you can't replace experience with a manual" to which there followed hearty chuckles that tapered off into a silence pregnant with rumination.