Keeping gas industry skills alive

12 inch class 600 ball valves for the SP AusNet Corio pressure reducing station (citgate) upgrade, assembled at the Zinfra Campbellfield workshop.

12 inch class 600 ball valves for the SP AusNet Corio pressure reducing station (citgate) upgrade, assembled at the Zinfra Campbellfield workshop.

It is no secret that the average age of those working in the gas industry continues to rise. As the long-term workers retire and leave the industry, so too do essential skills and knowledge.

In contrast to this trend is the flourishing Australian gas market, riding high on increasing domestic and export demand, which is increasing the need for network development and expansion, and therefore the requirement for skilled and qualified workers to support these works.

Zinfra Manager of Gas, Water and Civil Graeme Mitchell has felt the impact of an ageing workforce significantly, as his business expands and his requirement for skilled gas workers grows.

“I can see a real need, but also an opportunity with an ageing workforce,” says Mr Mitchell.

Research by recruitment agencies, government and related industry bodies continues to report on the issue of an ageing gas workforce, but few suggest solutions to this industry-wide problem.

The 2012 Enviroscan report, published by Training Standards Australia, states that “The low proportion of 15–24 year olds in the industry, almost 60 per cent below the national average…means that for every worker in the 15–24 year age range in the industry, there are two workers over the age of 55 and approaching retirement. For an innovative and technology-driven industry experiencing dramatic expansion, this is cause for concern.”

With this in mind, Mr Mitchell’s recruitment strategy and his team have been critical to the success of building the Zinfra Campbellfield depot in Victoria from a base of just three people in 2010 to over 60 today.

The average age of workers at Zinfra reflects that of the general industry, but this also means it is a very experienced and knowledgeable team.

“Supervisors are mature, and each one of them has 20–30 years’ experience under their belt,” explains Mr Mitchell.

But as the workforce ages, so too does the knowledge pool in the industry, with essential skills and expertise leaving the industry, or literally dying out.

Seeing the writing on the wall and seeking to position Zinfra well into the future, Mr Mitchell is strategically recruiting people to retain these skills and knowledge within the business.

By recruiting skilled tradesmen – such as builders and carpenters – and pairing them up with his experienced gas technicians, he is attracting a younger worker, whilst also gaining a diversity of skill in his team.

“These guys are generally looking for a change and to broaden their skill base, so are usually keen to learn,” says Mr Mitchell.

“Because they’ve been on the tools and using problem-solving in their traditional trades, Zinfra benefits by gaining a diversity of skills and a certain level of experience and maturity.”

Zinfra System Operations Supervisor Rodney Wegener is aged in his low forties, and considers himself one of the last apprentices to come out of the “old gas and fuel days”.

He explains how pairing up co-workers is assisting knowledge retention within the business, and helping Zinfra deliver.

“Our systems operations (gas transmission) guys are flat out with regulator upgrades and installations, such as the major pressure reducing station upgrade at Corio for SP AusNet. These guys operate in small teams of two or three, so by splitting up my older guys with the younger ones, I am doubling my worker numbers and skilling up our workforce at the same time.”

Mr Wegener explains that the site at Campbellfield is also proving invaluable.

“Our customised workshop has been tooled-up so we can do some of our own construction and assembly of gas infrastructure.

“We have a lathe, welding gear, grit-blasting and coating equipment, and pressure testing equipment, so we can keep these skills in-house.”

Whilst the problem of the ageing workforce and the loss of knowledge in the gas industry is larger than one simple solution, Mr Mitchell has shown that fresh thinking, careful recruitment and a strategic approach to managing his business can go part of the way to overcoming this endemic problem.

Enter your details to subscribe to the free fortnightly Gas Today e-newsletter

Thank you for signing up for the Gas Today Online Update.