Emerging Aberdeenshire: New Opportunities in the North East
After the downturn in the oil and gas sector, where next for Aberdeenshire? DIGIT speaks to business leader Ross Jolly about the emerging entrepreneurial opportunities for the North East of Scotland.
As the global fall in oil prices started to bite, the North East of Scotland, focused on Aberdeen, found that it’s long-standing position as the oil capital of Europe was no longer the rock-solid guarantee of prosperity it had once been.
With companies closing down, shedding jobs, or moving elsewhere, the oil and gas sector encountered the most severe and sustained economic downturn in decades. The region faced a choice, resign itself to the realities of the new market and try to weather the worst of the problems, or reinvent itself, reduce its reliance upon North Sea oil and find new opportunities, industries and markets where the North East of Scotland can make a positive impact.
The North East chose the latter.
DIGIT spoke to recruiter, business mentor, regional expert (and drone pilot) Ross Jolly, to find out more about the how the North East of Scotland’s attempt to diversify and encourage entrepreneurship is progressing.
Oil Industry Veteran
Ross is no stranger to the oil industry. His father started working in the North Sea back in the 1970s and growing up, the oil industry was as much an expected destination for school leavers as the shipyards once were for Glasgow. Ross bucked the trend slightly, by joining a graduate scheme with retail giant John Lewis, before realising that the sector was not a long-term career and joining an agency in the energy sector as a trainee.
Since then Ross has worked with a wide range of companies and organisations in the oil and gas sector, focusing on global recruitment for on and off shore positions with EPCs, Operators and Subsea companies across almost every energy rich region in the world.
As a veteran of the sector, Ross has seen his share of downturns and periods of uncertainty. After having been made redundant in the past, Ross started his own consultancy Deemount Consulting, when he began working with a major North Sea operator in 2013.
DIGIT: After such as serious and sustained downturn, are there signs of life in the North East of Scotland?
Ross Jolly: “There’s been a long period of uncertainty with a lot of companies downsizing, shedding jobs, relocating, or even closing their doors. However, we are now finally, seeing activity starting to re-emerge albeit in small doses. Companies are starting to look for a growing number of people but the issues will be attracting skilled personnel who have either taken early retirement, moved internationally or changed industry. Also the limited traineeships/apprenticeships we’ve witnessed will see a shortage of younger professionals coming through with the appropriate training.
“Outside the oil and gas industry, there are a growing number of events focused on entrepreneurs and founders from organisations such as the Aberdeen Young Professionals, which are attracting more people interested in starting their own business. Many of the AYP members have decided to give their business idea a shot, having been forced to reevaluate their career after facing redundancy.”
DIGIT: After such a long pause, will the industry be able to pick up where it left off?
Ross: “The industry is likely to find that it has problems at both ends of the skills spectrum. When the downturn really started to bite, many of the training programmes designed to bring young people into oil and gas were cancelled or closed. The young people already on those course found themselves with no jobs awaiting them and nowhere to go. Feedback from many young people in the area is that they now consider the oil and gas sector far more of a risk than they may have done a few years ago.
“This has been compounded by the fact that at the other end of the recruitment ladder, large numbers of very experienced people were encouraged to take early retirement, or found themselves moving abroad for enticing opportunities with superior financial incentives. That has left some fairly significant skills gaps in the industry. Attracting that talent back to the UK and back to the North East is going to be the biggest challenge. Without those high level skills, the the next generation of workforce are left without the real, practical hand-on skills which are invaluable in such as safety-conscious sector.”
DIGIT: Can technology help to address the economic problems in the North Sea?
Ross: “The oil and gas sector has always been driven forward by technology and new breakthroughs. However in an industry which is so risk-averse, which requires such massive investments and has such huge organisations, technology is not always the key driver you might see in the digital world.
“In some cases the ‘IT’ goals and requirements are a million miles away from those of the people on the ground and finding a way to introduce new technology can be a slow and arduous process. So disruptive technologies are maybe not as common as they are in other industries. That’s now having to change, as companies are being challenged – at the very highest levels – to reduce costs and enable them to operate more efficenciently.
This is the point where technology comes in as a real driver, as it’s the innovative use of technology which can produce those efficiencies and reduce those costs. The focus on innovation is enabling less established companies, which might have found it incredibly hard to get in front of the big names in the oil and gas sector, to come in and really start to make a difference.
“The Oil and Gas Technology Centre has also supported local businesses to the tune of almost £40 million through their solution centres to assist in unlocking the potential of the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS) in areas such as Asset Integrity, Well Construction, Digital Transformation and Decommisioning.”
DIGIT: Outside oil and gas, what are you seeing in and around the North East?
Ross: “There are a number of very encouraging new initiatives taking place across the region including the creation of Opportunity North East (ONE) which is doing a lot of work to help the region as a whole to diversify and become less reliant upon the oil sector.
“There’s been a real recognition that the North East has had a real under investment in infrastructure. From basic connectivity such as mobile phone coverage and broadband Internet, the region hasn’t been well-served to enable new businesses – especially those in the tech sector – to grow and thrive.
“In addition, thanks to the long years of prosperity, the cost of living in and around Aberdeen is very high. This has posed a problem when trying to attract and relocate people to the area for additional key roles such as teachers, nurses, doctors and the like.
“However, changes are a foot. There’s new infrastructure in the city, gigabit broadband on its way, a new bypass is being built and we can see that investment finally being made. It’s making a difference. There’s a sense of momentum growing, which is encouraging more people to think in an entrepreneurial way”
DIGIT: Are you seeing changes through initiatives like Opportunity North East?
Ross: “The whole focus of the organisation is on diversification. It’s about attracting the entrepreneurial spirit and convincing people who have been made redundant, or had their working hours reduced, that now’s the time to give it a go.
“It’s fair to say that on the whole, Aberdonians can be quite cautious. They’re not necessarily natural entrepreneurs. However, financial challenges can be a great incentive to try that business idea and seek advice and guidance to make it happen. Another factor is that businesses outside oil and gas can sometimes be cautious when considering potential employees from the oil sector and wonder if they’re just marking time until the industry picks up again. Which can make it tough to find other employment.
“We’re now seeing more and more people realise they have skills they can utilise for their own benefit, or which are of value to other industries which will help them diversify. In addition, for some people from an oil and gas background, they’re starting to realise that running their own business is a real possibility and that it can provide that work / life balance they have been seeking.
“We’re also now recognising growth in areas such as food and drink with companies seeing phenomenal growth like Brewdog and Fierce Beer, through to the increase in travel and tourism, Aberdeenshire is starting to blossom.”
DIGIT: You mentioned Aberdeen Young Professionals, can you tell us more about that?
Ross: “AYP is doing a great job at encouraging that entrepreneurial spark and providing a platform for members to meet decision makers in numerous industries. There’s a lot of support for entrepreneurs, but it’s very spread out and difficult to decipher where to go for the assistance you require – there’s no ‘one stop shop’ which can make things a little complicated.
“The organisation can help founders with a new idea for a business, or those trying to diversify themselves from the oil and gas sector. There’s a mentoring programme which pulls in skills from a very diverse range of sectors and which can provide insight into a really broad range of roles, which has proven to be incredibly useful. In a lot of cases, the mentors are getting as much out of it as the mentees themselves.
“AYP is helping to build new channels for getting into these different industries as well. Events focused on schools, colleges and graduate schemes in the coming year will be helping young people in the area understand the new opportunities and sectors in the region. Given the reduction in the number of training schemes, AYP is now even starting to point young people back towards oil and gas, if they’re interested in a role in that sector.
“Moving forward AYP will further develop the Mentorship Scheme with additional mentors and mentees keen to get on board. The annual AYP Ball highlights and shares the successes of the scheme and recognises the mentor and mentee of the year with an award. We will continue building momentum and encourage more young people, more founders and more entrepreneurs to get involved by sharing knowledge and building long lasting business relationships.
“Aberdeen and the North East are diversifying, evolving and growing. The region is becoming a technological hub. It’s great to see. I’m delighted to be involved in the whole process and remain positive for the future.”