Ask an expert: Kate Cuic on employment in the gas and pipeline sector

The pipeline and gas industry is facing a looming skilled workers shortage as the sector undergoes a period of dramatic change. The Australian Pipeliner talks to specialist recruiter at Peter Norman Personnel Kate Cuic about hiring trends, how work culture has changed under COVID-19, and how the global energy transition is impacting jobs in the industry.

Peter Norman Personnel is a recruitment agency servicing the engineering and utilities sectors, with core markets across gas, water, electricity, communications, transport and manufacturing. Kate Cuic is a recruitment manager with specialist insider knowledge of pipeline projects and spaces. 

Is there a looming skilled workers shortage? 

According to Ms. Cuic, yes there is a looming skilled labour shortage. The demand for skilled engineers is climbing in the advanced manufacturing sector and national infrastructure projects are on the rise. 

“STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is proving to be fundamental for the new jobs that are emerging,” she says. “Engineering is in every aspect of our lives. As our needs evolve, these technical skills are of paramount importance for the future.” 

University programs are evolving to meet those needs, blending the core disciplines and increasing flow to these key qualifications. But just one of the reasons for the shortage can be attributed to the lack of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.

 Australia’s talent pool is limited by the underrepresentation of half its population in STEM education and careers. According to the Australian Government’s snapshot of disparity in STEM 2021, in Year 12, boys outnumber girls three to one in physics and two to one in advanced mathematics. 

“In my time, the representation of women in engineering has changed, but not in leaps and bounds,” says Ms. Cuic. “It has been good in this particular niche more so than broader engineering, but we’re working with smaller numbers.” 

According to a recent statistical overview by Engineers Australia, just 11 per cent of Australia’s engineering workforce is female.  

“The visible female leadership has been wonderful. The emerging visibility – the stuff on the ground in terms of attending membership industry events – has been very, very slow. But we’re getting greater participation in the industry as a result of industry-focused efforts and APGA programs. That diversity has added a lot of value to the industry.”

According to Ms. Cuic, an engineering degree can be particularly valuable as not everyone with an engineering qualification will end up becoming an engineer. 

“Especially when you consider how much engineering education has changed from the notion of the person who designs, builds, maintains engines, machines and structures,” she says.  

“A generic qualification can provide tons of pathways into logistics, operations management, patent law, procurement, academia training, consulting, sales and more.” 

Ms. Cuic herself is a mechanical engineer by trade. “My first job was in engineering consulting, working in various problem-solving projects across so many different industries. I created centralised material management systems for multiple concurrent pipeline projects – that’s logistics.” 

Ms. Cuic said that her qualification has even proved useful for problem-solving hiring outcomes for their clients and the candidates, as well as in their own practice in processes, systems and operations.

How can the industry better appeal to young graduates? 

Ms. Cuic says the industry is experiencing declining appeal among young people. One of the ways we might change this is in how we market pipeline engineering in tertiary spaces. 

“It comes down to PR – it’s about marketing the industry. Because we don’t see it in our day-to-day lives – it’s hidden, its underground – it’s not something that is regularly admired,” she says.  

“We’ve got to get on the front foot as a community: that means people working in the pipeline industry, in schools, in mainstream media. It needs to be a lot more visible as something that’s beneficial for humankind. Pipeline infrastructure is good for the future and it is worth investing in.” 

Ms. Cuic also touches on reutilisation of pipelines for the clean energy transition. The pipeline and gas sector is steadily becoming a greener sector, and the appeal for some corners of the industry are on the decline. 

“These are assets in the ground that can be repurposed for alternative delivery, rather than natural gas. We need to capitalise on that aspect – we’re really at a crossroads,” she says. 

One way to increase the appeal among young people is to offer more training, mentoring and retention programs in schools and in workplaces. A renewed focus on the use of innovative engineering techniques, smart digital technologies and the pivot in the energy transition will also help to draw emerging graduates back into the sector. 

“The quicker that we can make mainstream the message that gas and pipelines are positive thing, ultimately that is what’s going to contribute to our longevity.” 

What are the most transferrable skills? 

While industry trends come and go, Ms. Cuic says there are a few key capabilities that help ensure success in the industry. 

“Because there has always been a shortage in this sector, clients are looking laterally at skills that are transferrable from other sectors within their own businesses. It is a good trend to be able to pull from outside, bring in and bring up through your talent pool and training programs,” says Ms. Cuic. 

“Once employees get into pipelines, quite a few of them never leave. Actively within our recruitment space, we try to encourage that, because you do get peaks and troughs in terms of sectors.” 

Ms. Cuic explains that engineering as a profession experiences ebbs and flows in certain sectors. Previously, areas like automotive had been high demand only to become oversaturated or lose relevance. When the baseline level skills are there, the opportunities for graduates can be varied. 

“For example, our clients were willing to look at the automotive industry who worked to high compliance and quality assurance standards as their transferrable engineering skills would be perfectly relevant and applicable to the pipeline space.” 

Ms. Cuic says that there are some essential skills that help guarantee security in the industry. Firstly, there is communication. “With working remotely, working digitally, and the evolution of communication through all it’s different iterations, communication has always been a challenge,” she says. 

“What we mean by communication skills is the ability to use different styles and techniques. The more that graduates can understand different writing registers, speaking styles and listening skills, the better.” 

The second is a mind for problem solving. Ms. Cuic says from an engineering perspective, these things transcend any space: logical thinking, problem solving and strong numeracy. 

“These are strongly desirable across any sector, and they’re the core thing engineers bring to the table.” 

Workplace flexibility is here to say, at least for the foreseeable future. 

Ms. Cuic says that new working arrangements imposed by COVID-19 have had varying effects on the sector. On the one hand, most of the industry is considered essential services, so the impact to work continuously has been minimal. On the other hand, more and more people are working from home than ever before. 

“It’s a double-edged sword,” she says. “There have been psychological risks, isolation, fatigue that have accompanied working from home. There are the ergonomic risks, poor organisational change in a tech sense, job security. Some may feel they’re not as well supported.

“On the other hand, it’s been a great leveller. From an employment perspective, it’s had a positive impact on the culture and in many ways, it has humanised our work,” she says. “It’s been an opportunity to get to the core of what it means to do your job and how you can do it easier and manage it with your life.” 

According to the Global Energy Talent Index report, 46 per cent of employees feel that events of 2021 have already resulted in a ‘new normal’ for their sector, with social distancing constituting the biggest new way of working. 

Advice for people looking to secure work in the sector  

“Have a clear idea of what type of work you are capable of, then apply for the work that fits those capabilities and aspirations,” says Ms. Cuic. “Aligning your skills with your values and goals.” 

Ms. Cuic suggests that attending conferences, seminars and networking opportunities in that sphere is a safe bet for improving your changes at employment in the industry.  “Sign up to the association, join in the dialogue; even if you don’t have experience, showing interest is also a good thing.” 

As resources, she recommends the APGA, Engineers Australia and industry-aligned branches like the Australasian Corrosion Association for prospective employees wanting to break into the pipeline and gas space. 

“Corrosion is very specific. It comes from materials and chemical focus. Most people don’t know that it exists until they encounter it in their work. Materials, science, chemical engineering.” 

According to Ms. Cuic, there are many opportunities within the pipelines and gas sector that might not seem immediately obvious. Not only are opportunities varied, but they are evolving to meet the needs of a rapidly changing society. The pipeline space provides opportunities for architects of change and delivers the critical services we take for granted every day. 

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