“I just can’t see a future here. The constant downturns, the lack of new opportunities, the emergence of other sectors taking longer than hoped. I’m considering a move slightly further afield; London, Edinburgh, perhaps to the Middle East or Australia. Notwithstanding how fragile things are, I don’t really want a career in oil and gas. It’s dirty, polluting, and doesn’t have the best track record of progressive policies relating to staff”

These are not my words.

But this is what I’m starting to hear more and more from candidates when I approach them about job opportunities based in Aberdeen, especially younger people without any real ties.

If we rewind back to 2006 when I started my career here, things were very different. Back then (prior to three significant oil downturns) career opportunities were almost limitless. Join a major oil operator or service company, work hard, and every two to three years you would likely get promoted, with a large increase in salary thrown in for good measure. Opportunities to travel and to work abroad were plentiful, training budgets were high, and generally people had a good work/life balance.

What's this blog about?

We are currently in a perfect storm of having to grapple with the continued fall out of Covid-19, coupled with an oil industry that is struggling to see a future in the North Sea. The supply chain is being squeezed to breaking point with many firms having to work at cost, or even worse, to stay open.

Hovering over all of this is the acceleration to achieve a greener economy. In 2019, the UK became the first major economy in the world to pass laws to end its contribution to climate change by 2050. The new target will require the UK to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, compared with the previous target of at least 80% reduction from 1990 levels.

The UK has already reduced emissions by 42% and has put clean growth at the heart of our modern economy. This could see the number of “green collar jobs” grow to 2 million and the value of exports from the low carbon economy grow to £170 billion a year by 2030, according to the previous Energy & Clean Growth Minister, Chris Skidmore.

Oil & Gas UK’s Roadmap 2035 sets out how the oil and gas industry can in fact be a big part of the solution to the climate change crisis. It has become the industry’s duty to reform itself, otherwise it could quite easily lose its agency to operate. This will be no mean feat with less money in the system and companies working in survival mode as they struggle to overcome the effects of Covid-19 and the drop in oil price.

But you’d be mistaken for thinking that this blog is about climate change – it’s actually about diversity. More specifically, diversity and inclusion (D&I for short) and what effect the current crisis could have on this.

What is D&I?

Diversity and inclusion is a company’s mission, strategies, and practices to support a diverse workplace and leverage the effects of diversity to achieve a competitive business advantage. Time after time, research has shown that a diverse workforce is not only a more productive one, but a happier one too.

When we are talking about a diverse workforce, we specifically mean similarities (and differences) among employees in terms of age, cultural background, physical abilities and disabilities, race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation.

The proven benefits of having a diverse and inclusive workforce include gaining a variety of perspectives, increased creativity, higher innovation, faster problem solving and better decision making. Increased levels of profit, higher employee engagement, reduced staff turnover, improved hiring results, and also a better company reputation, are all prevalent in organisations who ensure that diversity and inclusion practices are woven deeply within their cultures.

However, and very worryingly, a recent report by global management consultancy McKinsey warns “Inclusion and diversity are at risk in the (Covid) crisis – but are critical for business recovery, resilience, and reimagination”

Attack of the clones

At a time when we are seeing a significant number of job losses across our city you might be asking – “Ok, I get it – but what has this really got to do with me?”

And herein lies the paradox.

The research shows that a diverse workforce significantly outperforms a non-diverse one, but in these very challenging times it can fall way down the pecking order in priorities, especially during a hiring process. It can be quite wrongly deemed a ‘nice to have’ rather than something essential which must be continuously managed.

As the opening of this blog suggests, in Aberdeen, we are losing a great deal of the next generation of highly skilled candidates to other cities and to other industries.

Therefore, it’s imperative that we start to think about the brain drain and skills shortage that this will facilitate in the medium and long term. At the same time, there is a glut of experienced job seekers applying for every role.

With a shift in the scales it’s become an employer’s market, and this can allow a great deal of unconscious bias to creep in during the recruitment process. Hiring managers can invariably (through no real conscious fault of their own), hire someone with a very similar background to theirs. Us humans are creatures of habit and it might seem less ‘risky’ to hire someone who is a carbon copy of yourself or cherry pick someone who looks like the most obvious fit.

Real talk

I feel very fortunate, that in my career, I’ve seen very little discrimination in terms of sex. Looking back, the candidates I’ve hired for companies have been a very equal mix of male and female. However, they are overwhelming White British, from a certain background, and more often than not between the age of 25-40. None of this is on purpose, but therein lies the problem.

It could be argued that by living in Aberdeen it’s very difficult not to shortlist candidates with this background. Studying up to date census data during my research highlighted to me that Aberdeen is more ethnically diverse than I had first thought, but compared to other cities in the UK or internationally it is not so, with 92% of its residents being “White British” .

But what about selecting candidates from different economic classes, maybe those who haven’t gone to university or qualified within Big 4? Interestingly, Big 4 firms have made hugely positive moves in this area through their apprenticeship programmes. In 2016, the Financial Times ran an article about the Big 4 overhauling their graduate recruitment processes, putting less emphasis on grades and more on capability and softer skills. This is clearly progress, but is it enough?

The most pressing problem that I repeatedly find through each downturn is the inability for more experienced (read older) candidates to secure really good mid-level roles. These typically go to “driven, motivated, up and coming” candidates (read 25-35 year old’s) who have more ‘potential’ (read whatever you want into that one…). But are we missing out on people who have worked through these downturns and know how to get us out of them? I fear there is no easy answer, but surely it’s worth us addressing?

A new workplace cultural revolution

We are fortunate in the UK to have strict employment legislation and regulation to guard against such bias and behaviours, but I think we all need to hold up our hands to say that it happens, even on a very deep and unconscious level.

The workplace cultural revolution that we’ve all witnessed since March, where working from home (WFH) not only works, but is preferred by over 90% of workers, is set to have polarizing effects on D&I. More women (mainly mothers forced out of the workplace due to various reasons) may be able to continue in careers/jobs that were previously considered impossible due to the ability to work from home. Employees may not need to live beside their office, enabling people from different areas of the country, with differing cultural backgrounds, to join new companies in completely different regions. Could this actually lead to increased diversity?

However, a word of caution is required. Driving culture in a part, or fully remote, business is inherently tricky. It will become the norm in future, but the cohesion that can be generated from all gathering together in one place is naturally lost to some extent. What effect this will have on diversity and inclusion is still to be seen.

What's the future for Aberdeen?

It shouldn’t be underestimated how the decisions we make as individuals and businesses over the next two years will shape the future of our city. It is make-or-break if we are to succeed in transitioning to a cleaner, greener economy. Succeed, and the future of the region for us, our kids, and our grandkids is hugely exciting. Fail…well, let’s not go there shall we.

What is crystal clear is that to achieve this almighty aim, we will need a flexible, diverse, and inclusive work force, where great minds come together irrespective of their race, background or upbringing.

I for one, will not only be watching closely, I aim to be part of it.