Utilities companies deal with commodities such as water, gas and electricity. This sector has changed gradually over the past half century. The reasons for this change is privatisation. Whatever economic or political standpoint you take on the subject, it's impossible to ignore the impact this action has had on the industry with consumers facing more choice than ever before. Companies have to work hard at keeping and expanding their customer base; if the consumer is not happy with the service, they will go elsewhere. This opens up a host of jobs in customer services, IT, marketing and other more commercial areas.
Utilities provide a variety of vital public services including water supply, waste water treatment, gas and electricity generation and distribution. In this sector, graduates can be involved at all stages of a project from design and construction through to commissioning, operation and maintenance. You can work for large utilities companies or you may work for the utilities business of a construction company for example.
The utilities sector is heavily regulated. Changes to rules can alter the focus of utility companies and affect the direction of new projects. Keeping an eye on new regulations is important - Ofwat and Ofgem are the regulators for water and sewerage and electricity and gas markets, respectively. Operating companies are always striving for more efficiency and to make less environmental impact, so there is a strong drive to be more innovative. Power generation from renewable sources is high on the agenda.
The UK is world-renowned for its expertise, particularly in the area of deep water technology techniques unknown twenty years ago. Consequently, UK specialists are in demand all over the world. Recovering oil and gas from the North Sea and the Atlantic Margin is a highly technical, complex, dangerous and expensive job. The oil fields are small compared with those in other parts of the world. Production is therefore very expensive. UK oil companies have to be inventive and invest heavily in safe and efficient techniques to remain competitive.
Over 30 companies are involved in exploring for and producing oil. The oil (upstream) and gas extraction industry employs approximately 27,000 people offshore and about 270,000 people onshore in the UK, in over 6,000 companies. Industry-related employment represents 6% of the total workforce in Scotland. The downstream petroleum industry employs around 150,000 and several thousands of contract workers.
The utility industries have a number of career paths open to graduates. There is the whole technical side that involves the production, supply and transmission of oil, petrol, gas, water and electricity. The fact that so many of us take utilities for granted is perhaps a reflection of the mystery of it all.
There are opportunities for graduates from process, civil, control, electrical, mechanical and environmental engineering disciplines, but you will need to demonstrate a keen interest in actively extending your knowledge into engineering disciplines beyond your core subject.
Graduates can be involved in a variety of roles from design and construction through to asset management. Training is typically built into the job and you will quickly build your technical working knowledge and be given early opportunity to demonstrate leadership capabilities as you work towards a professional engineering qualification.
The energy sector is now highly competitive with consumers urged to look around for the best deals when purchasing electricity, gas and oil. While the North Sea oil and gas fields are well past their peak production levels, keeping them active has created a hive of activity. This is an international industry and the major players have operations in many countries, leading areas being off Africa, Eastern Russia, Alaska and, of course, the Middle East. Shell, for example, are active in over 140 countries. In the UK, oil has also been found in the Irish Sea. Firms operating in this area recruit engineers mainly for processing and the production of petrochemicals, but there are also roles available in exploration. Chemical engineers are still involved in process development, mechanical engineers in designing and producing a huge range of equipment from drilling rigs to pipelines. Electrical engineers are involved in seismic exploration and also provide control systems for the full range of equipment used. Structural engineers work out what is needed to withstand the ferocious conditions of offshore production.
Following the Kyoto agreement, which aimed to decrease the production of greenhouse gases and pollution, activity in wind energy has 'taken off' and this sector is expanding at more than 20% annually. Wind farms are appearing and energy from this source is increasing dramatically. Schemes to generate energy from waste materials and biomass are also being developed. Research into getting energy from waves and tides is progressing too. Great care is taken to reduce unwanted effluent from processes and exhausts from cars. Water companies are taking important steps to renew their infrastructure and reduce the quantities of products leaking into the environment. Environmental protection is yet another current engineering challenge. The petrochemical contractors who design, construct and commission plant around the world are also important recruiters in this sector.
You can see immediately the impact that you make and success is measurable. The predicted growth in the energy and utilities sector is massive and with a recognised shortage of professionals in the industry, particularly in the 25- to 35-year age group many employers are looking to fast track graduates with clear potential into management positions.
Water, electricity and gas companies all need engineers to work in generation, transmission and distribution. This becomes clear if you think of all the structures, pipes and wires that need to be set in place and kept in working order. A project engineer within the water industry for example, may oversee tunnelling projects to reduce the risk of flooding or work on capital investment projects. The nature of the hierarchy obviously varies from company to company but a project engineer is likely to work under a project manager. Graduates may be taken on as engineers and work their way up to project engineers from this point. Civil, mechanical, electrical and chemical engineers are all required in the utility sector. Gaining chartered status is likely to be a prerequisite to being employed as a project engineer.
Electricity in Britain is largely generated by fossil fuels and nuclear power. Engineers within power stations oversee the continual working of a plant. There are a number of activities such as shut-downs, start-ups, the installation of new equipment and on-site maintenance. Priorities for power stations are safety and the environment and anyone working there will be playing a part in ensuring that the plant meets regulations. A graduate will initially assume a role as an engineer and after considerable experience may become a shift manager. Be warned that the hours at a power station are irregular given that it needs staffing around the clock
Geoscientists are required by oil and gas companies to locate reserves and sources. Similarly, there is a call for engineers to evaluate the economic viability of these reserves and go about drilling them. Working in exploration and production can take graduates all over the world. Unusual working conditions are commonplace combined with unusual hours as employees often work shifts. The work is physically demanding and requires a flexible approach. In the field of exploration and production, graduates can move into general management roles, more specific areas or research.
Within each water company a team of water scientists offer the biological and chemical knowledge to ensure the correct treatment is used. They are based in laboratories and test water samples, guaranteeing that they are free from harmful bacteria, pesticides, lead, nitrate and iron. Graduates entering this field will need a degree in chemistry, biology or microbiology. Whilst some companies offer graduate training in this area, many are finding that it is a diminishing role. If this is the case, then there are very limited openings for senior management positions.
Utility companies are increasingly recruiting graduates into commercial roles like marketing, sales, IT and human resources. As the industry becomes more competitive, so the demand for such employees will increase. General management will gain a sharper customer focus as electricity, gas and water companies aim to impress their existing customers. Similarly, in marketing there is a new opportunity for attracting customers. Commercial roles will become increasingly international too as the British utility companies merge with firms from other countries. To enter the commercial side of the utilities industry may soon require a second language.
Employment in the oil and gas industry is available all over the UK, the largest regions being Scotland, London and the East Coast of England (these include the ports and terminals where oil and gas come ashore). There are oil refineries in Edinburgh, Liverpool, Milford Haven and Southampton. Offshore fields are found in the North Sea, the Atlantic Margin, the Irish Sea and the English Channel.
The nature of the industry can have a fluctuating demand on recruitment. According to recent surveys, there is a shortage of suitably qualified graduates, particularly in the areas of computing, electronic engineering, installation and abandonment, terminals and underwater services. A number of companies also anticipate a requirement for those with suitable postgraduate qualifications.
Future direct and indirect employment opportunities are likely to be in areas of IT, as well as drilling and sub-sea well-head construction sectors. Engineers and geoscientists are likely to be required across a range of key skills. The upstream industry gives graduates the opportunity to develop a truly global career, providing they can adapt to domestic and international relocations. The downstream gas industry recognises that with recent demergers, career paths for graduates are less clear, and skill sets gained narrower, so measures need to be taken to address this.
Over the next 25 years, the UK industry expects to make 130 new discoveries and 240 new developments. Long-term investment in new technology will be needed to increase productivity and find new sources of oil and gas. The industry will need to increase its ability to find and develop smaller, higher risk targets. Many wells lie deep under water – the UK expertise in this area will prove to be a very attractive and valuable export. As oil prices have returned to a high level, it may pay to apply ‘enhanced recovery’ techniques to existing and future finds. These techniques are costly and would require specialised platform facilities. There will be increasing development of small satellite fields linked by sub-sea collectors and pipelines to an existing central platform and pipeline to shore.
With a more integrated hydrocarbon industry, the sector will be looking to develop transferable skills in its employees so they can move between sub-sectors. Fast advancing technology requires a workforce who can adapt quickly. Future labour patterns of the sector will become more competitive requiring competently trained staff.
Qualifications and skills needed
The oil and gas industry needs high achieving, innovative graduates if it is to overcome the challenges of today and the future. It is currently suffering a personnel crisis – an ageing workforce with many senior personnel coming up to retirement age. The industry is addressing this problem positively with its graduate attraction programmes aiming to raise awareness of the industry as a whole and give positive information about career opportunities and challenges facing the industry.
There is a range of opportunities open to graduates covering both technical and commercial roles. Oil companies often recruit internationally, so UK graduates are competing with those from the USA and Europe. For technical roles, a postgraduate qualification is useful, not least because university education lasts longer outside the UK, and a higher degree is the normal entry to a professional career. Research any postgraduate courses carefully – check how many students obtain jobs at the end of the course. If the number is low, practical experience may be a better use of time.
Once accepted for a position, companies offer ‘on the job’ training and usually encourage employees to gain chartered status in the engineering area or professional qualifications in the commercial area, eg accountancy. CPD (Continuing Professional Development) is crucial in such a fast changing industry.
The larger employers have comprehensive websites. These contain a wealth of information about graduate opportunities. They may visit universities to give presentations or attend fairs. A number of companies now offer summer courses one-year industry schemes and summer internships - valuable for a range of reasons. The company has a chance to look at possible candidates for graduate positions and, more importantly, undergraduates obtain a real insight into an industry that places high demands on its workers.
If you are graduating with or have obtained a civil, mechanical, electrical engineering or a science degree you will be recruited for technical roles, whilst for management, I.T, logistics, customer service positions your degree discipline can come from any degree background.
Anyone keen to find a job in the utilities sector should keep abreast of all the latest developments in the industry, particularly those concerning the companies to which they are applying. Technical, creativity, leadership and numerical skills will be essential skills to help you work within the utility industry, as well as the traditional skills that recruiters look for i.e. communication, motivation, dedication etc. As these companies become global companies' language and the flexibility to travel can be an advantage.