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Recruiting to retain: Interview with senior pipeliner, Mike Kirkwood

Following the intriguing results from our global young pipeline professionals survey, we’ve interviewed various senior leaders within the industry to get their thoughts and advice on the findings, and to understand how they see the industry progressing in the future.

In this interview, we speak to T.D Williamson’s Mike Kirkwood, a pipeline integrity expert with over 35 years’ experience under his belt. Mike shares some interesting strategies around recruiting to retain, explains how the industry has changed since he first joined, and predicts some fundamental changes for the future.

Mike, to give us an idea of how the industry has developed, could you tell us how things have changed since you first joined?

Shifting workforce numbers
To set the scene, I originally came into the industry in 1987, when I joined British Gas which had been newly formed as a privatised company from it nationalised background. At the time, British Gas had around 85,000 employees at the time. It was an extremely large, newly nationalised company which looked after the entire gas stream from production to gas burner, ‘from the drill bit to the burnt tip’ as they used to say!

Then came along the governmental regulations that split, or demerged, many companies, particularly in Europe. In the gas market this meant upstream, midstream and downstream became new companies and British Gas ceased to exist and became Centrica (energy and services), BG Group (sales and trading) and Transco (pipeline transmission) that later became National Grid (integrated energy supplier). I remained with Transco that subsequently became National Grid.

The demerger saw a dramatic decrease in workforce numbers and some skills areas were in less demand as the newly formed companies focused of their core business. Being in the research and technology (R&T) division mean that some technically skilled people needed to re-skill and this was an opportunity for those people to come into pipeline integrity. These were young, bright engineers, many of which hold senior positions in our industry today.

Public perception
Early in my career, the industry was not very well known publicly. Of course, as time’s gone by and we’ve had our challenges and historical events, public awareness (and concern) has increased dramatically.

Age profile
I remember joining the industry in my late 20’s and the average age of the people around me being mid-40s. As a young engineer, I remember thinking what a long time it would take to progress my career into senior management level – and it really did! Back then you had to wait a while for senior jobs to become available, and even when they did it was highly competitive. It was also quite hierarchical, with progression mainly based on your years of service not necessarily based on competence. As I’ve progressed throughout my career that hierarchical approach has shifted, with many young, highly competent people now on accelerated career paths – which I think is a huge positive in our industry today.

The old-school, long climb approach really didn’t help to make it an attractive career because other sectors such as finance, IT, automotive, aerospace etc. had far greater career development opportunities, meaning we were losing out on some great talent. I’m pleased we’ve shifted into a much more progressive industry now.

Young engineers championing pipeline
A further fundamental change I’ve seen is the way in which young people now actively help to promote the pipeline industry, particularly through networking and joining in industry organisations such as the Young Pipeline Professionals. (YPP) You just didn’t get that when I was an early engineer, you had young engineer meetings associated with your chosen institution (I was and still am a member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers). However, these weren’t very focused to your sector – so you’d have people working in many industries and mainly focused on design and manufacture. A stark change to now, where we have very keen groups of young people across the world, supporting and promoting pipeline specific engineering.

What have been the key factors in driving your own career progression and success?

Back when I was doing my degree, my supervisor (who sat on the ASME boiler and pressure vessel committee) asked me to do a side project to develop some flexibility factors for pipeline branch junctions. We didn’t have any computers to do it then, so it was all done by hand with a calculator. At the time, my exposure to pipeline was very limited and I really hadn’t understood all the activities that were involved, but that project gave me exposure and after it was a success, I was asked by my supervisor to do a Ph.D. At the time I was hesitant as I was married with a house, and wasn’t sure about the financial implications, but once he told me about the sponsorship opportunities available. I applied and was accepted on a grant from British Gas which really was a turning point in my career, as they funded my research (which was progressive at the time) and I subsequently joined them as a research engineer.

I joined a highly skilled team, including the pipeline gurus of the time and a whole bunch of bright engineers in Newcastle, all working on research on the defects of the pipeline. This gave me access to some of the newest technology at the time.

Our small, dynamic team began working on a project for assessing corrosion more effectively which the industry ended up supporting us on. It really was a project which was required by the industry and driven by the industry. This allowed me to make valuable connections with a lot of operators across Europe. Now, at T.D. Williamson, I continue to work on similar projects, developing new methods for dealing with defects that come from in-line inspection (ILI) tools helping operators manage and prioritise their integrity issues.

So my key success takeaways from looking back at my own career? Always try and say yes to new opportunities and surround yourself with a great team. I always tell my young employees, don’t be afraid to try new things as it’s much more interesting to try something new than continue to do the same thing – plus you never know what doors it might open. And if a new opportunity does come along, then give it a go but don’t be afraid to reach out for help. One of the perks of our industry is that we are extremely collaborative in nature, we’re an entity full of very knowledgeable people who are always willing to help.

Are there any books, resources or events you would recommend to any young professional keen to advance their career? How do you keep learning in the changing pipeline landscape?

The ever-changing nature of pipelines means that books can be outdated quickly as technology develops, particularly in the realm of in-line inspection (ILI). There are some really good references, too many to list here but I personally find it more useful to use online resources from the regulators like Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the National Energy Board (NEB) etc. and from the industry associations such as the Pipeline Research Council International (PRCI), Interstate Natural Gas Association of America (INGAA), American Gas Association (AGA) etc. There are now so many resources on-line that was not available as I came into the industry.

One thing I’d highly advise young professionals to do is go to the conferences, the big ones like the International Pipeline Conference (IPC) in Calgary every two years, the Pipeline Pigging and Integrity Management Conference and Exhibition (PPIM) in Houston each year, and Pipeline Technology Conference (PTC) in Berlin every year. If you want to understand what’s going on, who the key players are and what the current state of technology is then it’s imperative to network. The approachable and non-secretive nature of our industry means you get ample opportunity to ask questions and learn from senior experts.

How have you seen mentorship and leadership strategies practiced effectively during your career?

Mentorship really has progressed since early in my career. It used to be much more process driven and technical, almost a tick box exercise. Now, people take a much softer approach. It’s no longer just about getting advice on the technical aspect of your job as mentors are more open to questions about how to be a good leader or practitioner, which I think is far more beneficial for career development.

When I look back, some of the best mentors and managers I’ve had were, above all, approachable, which I think is the essence of a good mentor. It’s someone you can go to for help who will steer you in the right direction. They help you to get to a place of clarity on your own.

One of the best mentors I can recall always took this approach. I’d come to her after reaching a point of frustration and she’d ask me if I’d thought about trying various methods. It wasn’t about dwelling on what went wrong or telling me it had to be done a certain way, it was a much more suggestive approach, which really helped me to learn and discover.

Another mentor was excellent at helping me prepare for important presentations or meetings. Pre-event, he’d ask me all the questions which you could guarantee would come up! And if things didn’t go to plan, he was always very good at providing feedback, asking me how I thought it went and then providing suggestions and thoughts to go away with.

So, a good mentor can’t just instruct or dictate, they need to be thought provoking to have a real impact on your development.

What qualities have some of the best people you’ve worked with had?

Available & Approachable
As I’ve mentioned, a key quality for me is approachability. Those individuals who will walk the floor, who will take 10 minutes out of their day to ask you what you’re doing. Some of the best leaders and managers of my career have done this, whilst making sure people felt comfortable approaching them in times of need, even up to Director or CEO level. It’s the ‘my door is always open’ approach which is invaluable to an organisation.

Proactive
I have real admiration for managers who aren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and help when they’re needed. Managers don’t always need to give direction, it’s important to get stuck in every now and again. It’s an approach I like to take – I’m always happy to present to the board or help on a report when the team needs me. You do find as some people go up the ranks they tend to lose interest in this (and capabilities along the way) but it really does help to keep your team motivated.

Overall though, I’d say most managers in our industry take this proactive approach, mainly because of the type of sector we’re in – safety doesn’t sleep after all! I think we attract a certain type of person because of this, we’re not 9 to 5’s and we certainly don’t go home when the fire’s raging – we get the hose out!

Our survey found that young professionals are most concerned about the skills gap. What is your company or team currently doing to address issues around the skill shortage?

Active recruitment of the younger generation
When I first joined the industry the average age was mid 40’s, but now we’re actively attracting a much younger demographic of people who are below 30. When we have open positions available we look for top talent—whether it be from those earlier in their career or experienced professionals.

Accelerated learning programs
At T.D. Williamson, we also have an engineering development program where we hire recent graduates into the industry and accelerate their learning through this program. They’re exposed to different aspects of the business from technical to administrative, and even get to move around our different global locations. Diversity is key for us in this – we’ve had engineers from all over the globe, many different nationalities and all genders. As a business, we understand that different cultures bring different important learning so we actively recruit to keep our company diverse.

We also have extremely good internal processes for identifying employee’s capabilities – so if a person demonstrates great innovative and strong abilities then they are promoted quickly and given accelerated learning opportunities. Our people programs have been developed over the years to be world class.

Further to this, we also have our advanced leadership development program. The program goal being to develop and prepare our future leaders.  Participants in the program go through multiple targeted learning events, including projects designed from real and complex business issues.

An open door attitude
Our senior leadership are excellent at communication and favour a less hierarchical approach, much more approachable with a big focus on bridging the skills gap. Essentially, we treat our young employees as our future leaders.

This open-door approach is also reserved for those who leave the company. Sometimes you do lose employees to other opportunities which can’t always be helped, but instead of being bitter about it, I make a point of congratulating them and letting them know that the door is always open should they wish to come back. And it works! We do get people returning to us.

Offering job autonomy
In my current role, I‘ve had to shift my approach to hiring by giving potential prospects more flexibility to develop and define their own job.

Just recently, I re-hired a key individual that left us to follow a different career path. We worked together to define the role and I took a lot onboard as to what they wanted to achieve and how he could best contribute to the company.

If you want to better retain talent, why wait until they want to leave to find out exactly what they want? It seems more logical to ask these questions from the very beginning. We can’t always define every job and role for every individual, so we must understand what their needs are and where they want to go.

Of course, there does have to be some compromise, but offering this sort of autonomy and flexibility makes employees more invested in a business. OK, it may not work across the board, but I did get a super person on my team.

Progressive approach
Overall, to say the company is almost 100 years old, we are a very progressive organisation in the way we attract talent and put time and effort into keeping that talent. This is something pipeline companies need to do to remain competitive in the job market.

50% of respondents feel that involving younger employees in executive meetings would help to better support them in their career development (and essentially help bridge the skills gap). What’s your view on this? Would more exposure to high level, decision-making, meetings be something you’d recommend?

I think the challenge with this is that there is always going to be some commercial sensitivity, where some information needs to remain confidential, so we do need to find a compromise. However, I fully support involving junior employees whenever possible to help develop their critical thinking skills.

It’s something we do well at T.D. Williamson, whether it’s inviting the entire company to understand our new strategy with company wide presentations and Q&As, or our regular staff meetings where we cascade information and where less experienced employees can ask questions and learn. We also continually ask our employees through our internal surveys and act on our findings.

It is important to provide a level of transparency. You must create a culture where employees aren’t afraid to ask questions or give suggestions.

59% of young professionals feel that retention could be improved by showing more recognition for the work young pipeliners do. What’s your professional view on this? Do you think this is a generational thing?

My view is that it’s important to recognise contributions across all age groups and employees.

How you do it matters
And it’s not just about giving recognition, it’s how you do it that matters. When we recognise employees for their positive contributions, we offer it in a way that provides a longer lasting impact rather than a short term feeling. If an employee gets our ‘value and action’ award they get a certificate for the wall, their photo taken for the company newsletter or intranet – it’s recognition across the company. Compare that to if you take a monetary approach, which is a much less impactful reward system.

Add a personal touch
Many years ago I was working on a project with someone which resulted in us winning an important contract. To say thank you, I found out he liked a particular famous Scottish “beverage” and so I personally sent him case!. Now, all these years later when I see him at conferences, he, and his colleagues, still remember that gift! It’s amazing how a small, personal touch can leave such a lasting impact.

Getting the right balance
A key ingredient of recognition is balance. You can’t give someone an award for everything they do, otherwise the recognition become less meaningful, but you can still thank them in small ways.

Giving some level of recognition is also important as young people tell me that saying nothing is as bad as saying something negative these days. I think there’s an element of social media influence there. Younger generations are now used to receiving instant feedback – if someone doesn’t like or respond to a social post then it’s seen as a problem. It’s that instant gratification mindset.

I think the younger generation have certainly driven us to think about recognition in a different way, but overall this is positive. When I was coming up in my career, recognition was a real frustration. You never really knew if you’d done a good job or not as no one would say very much. What you need is real feedback so you do know how well you’ve done and if improvements should be made for next time.

So, good recognition is essentially the right balance of reward based on contribution, with an added element of personal touch.

You mention social media, 59% of young professionals who took our survey also think that better utilisation of this would be the most impactful tactic for attracting new employees. Do you see the use of social media and creating an effective online presence as a key part of attraction new talent?

I’m not a big user of social media myself, I am over 50 after all! However, I do see the value and importance of it in order to reach our younger generation.

You have to keep an ear to the ground to understand what the next popular platform will be, as you can spend a lot of time developing a social media strategy on a couple of platforms only to find that these are no longer the platforms of choice. I remember Myspace, which was the social media platform in 2008, it was the thing to be seen on, but I have not logged on for over 10 years!

One issue our industry faces when it comes to social media is around the slow process for getting anything out. You must act fast and strike when the information is relevant. If we want to stay relevant on these platforms we must find a better, more streamlined approach that enables us to post quickly and efficiently. We are getting there and as our digital marketing strategy evolves, we are seeing the benefits of our social media presence.

One concern that I personally think about is that we are an industry in the spotlight so we have to be cognisant of who might be reading the information we post. This means we have to be careful and meter the content carefully with all readers in mind.

Improving public perception was voted as a key way to help with the attraction of new recruits. Do you think the industry could do more to promote the positive aspects, and do you think more public education is needed around the value of pipelines?

We know public perception is a real issue which has increased dramatically over the years. At an industry meeting recently, there was an example of a pipeline which was built in the 90’s. There was not one demonstration or objection to that pipeline. Compare that to now, where it can take several years to get a new pipeline built. The public have an important voice and it is right that due care and diligence if given to every project.

On education, I think we have to give the younger generations a choice by educating them early on. As all these resources become scarcer and more impactful on the world then they can make an informed choice.

Oil and refined products are likely to be used less and less as a source of energy but still as a feedstock for other materials. However, I feel there is still a lot of use for gas, this will continue to be a clean source for electricity generation and a peak shaving source when green energy cannot meet demand. I think this is where we need to focus more on promotion and as we see the use of bio-gas, hydrogen generation from renewable energy, pipelines will remain an important energy artery.

What changes do you see the pipeline market facing in the next 5-10 years?

Technology
The way we’ve seen vehicle technology shift into cars thinking for themselves, I think we’ll see that play out in pipelines too. In the near future,  pipelines will be able to predict their own deterioration and tell when they are ready to be inspected. In fact, that with sensor technology and machine learning this is already something that’s being worked on now.

Jobs
This new technology will likely bring a surge of different disciples into our industry. From experts in IT infrastructure, software development, machine learning, big data analytics etc. We’re going to get a different class of pipeline engineers that have a much more of a data focus.

This change is already happening. When I started in the industry  geographical information systems (GIS) were not used, but now, they’re commonplace. We’re going to see the analytics side play a greater role in the day-to-day job of pipeline operators. As we say right now, “it’s all about the data”.

Materials
Materials will also change as the product changes, which ties back to jobs as we’ll see a lot more focus on materials and chemistry that we have seen over my career.

Currently, there’s a lot of activity around hydrogen. Hydrogen can be generated through electrolysis and hence can be produced by green sources and is a good way to store energy much more efficiently that current battery technology. In fact, in Leeds (where ABN Resource are based!), in order to decarbonise, the H21 project is looking to switch its pipeline system from methane to hydrogen.

Security
A major threat right now is security. Security from the point of view of malicious damage, theft and cyber-attack from theft of the product through illegal hot tapping, drone attacks and hackers hacking into the control and instrumentation systems. Pipelines are now targets and different approaches are needed to ensure they are protected.

All this highlights that there is a positive future for pipelines, something we must get across to young people. It is a safe (and exciting!) industry to be in.

What skills should less-experienced professionals be working on now, to prepare them for the future changes?

It’s clear you’re going to need to have a much broader skill set than in the past. The more experience you have around sensors, electronics, computer sciences, robotics, machine learning, big data, IT etc. – the more attractive and relevant you’ll be to the industry. As public perception continues to be an issue, non-engineering skills are also going to be valuable such as environmental, legal, public relations etc.  

So don’t look at us as purely an engineering based industry, look at our industry as a place where people of many broad disciples are needed. The industry is progressing, and there’s never been a more exciting time to join.

ABN Resource would like to thank Mike & T.D Williamson for being part of our senior pipeline series. For more interviews like this one, please sign up to our monthly newsletter below, or find more insights on our oil & gas industry blog.

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