Bravely leaping off the icefloe

Last December, I was in the Qantas lounge, and a vaguely familiar man approached me.

?You?re Virginia?, he said.  ?I?m Bruce. You may not remember me, I was in the mineral drilling game in WA, but got out ten years ago. I?m now in the oil industry.  I?ve had a full day at Drillsafe with people talking about competency.  Is that your doing??

?Partly,? I said, surreptitiously checking the exits.

?I remember you at that consultation meeting in Perth in – what? – 1996?? he continued. ?All those blokes arguing about what a driller does and trying to agree on drilling competency standards and qualifications. Guess you finished them. Today the room was full of it.  Good thing for the industry – I?m amazed.?

?Me, too,? I said.

And I am – amazed that oil and gas drilling is a leader in obtaining qualifications for its personnel. This was the sector least likely to engage in Australian qualifications because of the international nature of most oil drilling contractors. The sector in which companies stood like penguins at the edge of the icefloe, waiting for the first one to fall in to see if he bobbed up again (or was eaten by the leopard seals of cost and complication). The National Offshore Petroleum Authority and Queensland Inspectorate of Petroleum decided that if there were national competency standards, they?d better reference them, and suddenly it was ?everyone into the pool?.

In the mineral exploration sector, regulation compels contractors to seek formal competence for their personnel.  The king hit way to do this is against national standards, so the sector has worked with training towards developing and issuing competency qualifications for personnel – more than 2000.

I haven?t seen the drill and blast nor foundation/construction sectors rush to the fore yet.

Safety training has been a priority for along time, but most companies seem to wait until regulation compels them to award atrade qualification to their employees.  This is a shame.  We have strong, industry-based qualifications in drilling in all sectors, including drill and blast, based on industry input from all those Bruces.  We?ve had drilling qualifications since November 1998 – for ten years.  There?s a tried system to issue them. Who do you know who holds one?

It?s clear some managers fear giving employees a qualification that they may take elsewhere. Or maybe they think qualifications and competency are not important until itlives in their yard.  So until the Chief Inspector of [insert your area of work] says people have to be ?competent?, why worry?

However, at an industry level, the drilling industry has been quite strategic and altruistic.  The tools to help companies train towards qualifications are there, developed on industry (and government) money.

The proof of this strategic approach is the units of competency and appropriate qualifications based on industry input.  
The not-for-profit industry body that I manage – with a board of managing directors who are chairmen and presidents of other industry associations – is an example of strategy at industry level.  It exists to improve the skills and professionalism of the industry -in our own eyes, in the eyes of our contract principals, in our insurers? eyes, and in public perception.

The altruism is in stark contrast to other industries? attitudes.  Though competitors for business, many drilling contractors, large and small, agree that increasing the quantum of training and skilled personnelthroughout the industry is good.  This comes from the industry?s long experience that with the cyclical nature of business, personnel will always move from company to company, sector to sector.  What we?re not so happy about as an industry is the movement of personnel to the outside, often to the client principal. That?s been a feature of our lives in the high times.

And yet we?re commonly not recognizing our skills or training to identifiable standards. This would convince employees they are in an industry that?s here to stay with a recognisable and valuable skills set.

It may be that these tough times are the illwind that blows somebody good.  I hope that companies which have resisted the opportunity to recognise the extensive and particular skills of offsiders, drillers, senior drillers and drill supervisors of various stripes may see the strategy of recognition of skill and award of qualification as a way to retain workers. Failing that, regulatory requirements in the future may force the issue.

So when I admit I?m partly to blame for this rash of competency, it?s true. However, in the drill and blast and foundation/construction sectors I can feel mostly free of blame, with under 10 qualifications issued to these two sectors since 1998.  Before all the Bruces go to other sectors, we need someone in the industry to be brave, altruistic and decisive, and jump off the icefloe first.

Virginia Hilliard is Chief Executive Officer and Company Secretary of the Australian Drilling Industry Training Committee.

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