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As the quest for essential resources grows ever more challenging, and the price of oil crashes, Bilfinger has to step up to the plate to get the right engineers with the right skills into some of the most hostile and remote places in the world, in order to keep the oil and gas pipelines pumping. The engineering fraternity is ageing, the pipeline for young talent is dribbling, this is a sector with a skills crisis ahead.

Sue tell us about your early life and why you got into HR?  

I was born in Zambia, my dad was in the RAF when I was quite small, but most of my childhood was in Liverpool. I went to Huddersfield Poly and studied behavioural sciences to a point where I had to make a decision, whether to do clinical psychology or HR, and I decided on HR. I went to Sheffield Hallam Polytechnic, as was, and I achieved my post grad in HR at the Wellcome Foundation, and from there, my first job was with what is now Glaxo Smith Kline, based at Beckenham in Kent, in the research and development division. I was on a graduate HR programme, the idea being to get a grounding in training and development and then move on to a more generalist role, in production and development. I learnt a lot at GSK, about the importance of providing the right environment to challenge yourself, take risks and not be fearful of failure, and that’s about good quality line managers. Here, mine was fantastic and really set me on the right career course. At this time, Wellcome was merging with Glaxo and my HR team was working with its US counterpart in the merger, and I spent time with the business directors in Raleigh Durham in the US and Beckenham, my first experience working directly, strategically with leaders. We set about recruiting from the two businesses the teams that would take the business forward. Post the merger I began to feel that I needed to move on and gain some new experiences, so I left this colossal pharmaceutical business, highly structured, organised and defined and went to a small, privately-owned company called Alison Associates, which focused on dealership performance across the automotive industry. This, of course, was the complete polar opposite of GlaxoWellcome. People thought I had lost the plot – no organisational structure, no training programmes, the business had never had an HR person before, and had been going for 20 years – it was still being run by the guy who started it. He interviewed me and said; “we need HR, it’s up to you how you want to do it”. So I had the proverbial blank sheet to work on, and without many existing guidelines or structure that I had grown accustomed to – boy was it a challenge! I spent three years setting up an HR, introducing new systems, contracts and L&D programmes, so from zero to a fully implemented structure. I thought “time to move again”!

You seem to have a sky-diver's mentality to your career. Most people like to stick with the safe and secure.  

Yes, you could say that, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but you’ve got to have the courage to go for different experiences. That said, I was offered the role of HR Associate at Lehman Brothers, the global financial services firm. I went there and stayed about six months, and I realised practically from day one it was not the job for me. Great people, intelligent, driven, but so far removed from what I was used to, in terms of culture and structure. I was used to HR being at the heart of business and decisions, having autonomy and a voice that was listened to. I persevered, but things didn’t improve, and so I applied and got the role of the HR Manager for, a management consulting services company which changed its name to Accenture in 2001. The business was just going through its “divorce” from Arthur Andersen at the time, and of course there was a lot of movement and change, and my responsibilities extended all over the European operations. An international role, which gave me great insight into different territories and markets, and working in a much more strategic way. The business was moving into outsourcing, and Sainsbury’s wanted to outsource part of their IT function, and I received a call, asking me to come to the unit internally, there was a high volume of TUPE and managing transition, which kept me busy for a couple years, and this led to a new position in the HR lead for the Products market unit, which was very diverse and challenging and was a good fit for me. A few years later I was offered the HR Director role for the UK. This was a great job, the problem was, I was based in London and my family was up North in Liverpool, and the commute was taking its toll. So I applied for a generalist role with Shop Direct Group, just at the point when they were transitioning from catalogue to online shopping. I joined a completely new sector for me of course, and I had a lot to learn and quickly. Shortly after, the Group HR Director left, so I covered as interim Group HRD. A new HRD from M&S came in, and a littIe while later I left on maternity leave, had my daughter, came back and then had to explain that I was about to have another baby, my son. I took a year off after I had Joe and, for the first time, I had the time and space to really take stock of things, and think ‘what next’?

It is an obvious and very regretful fact that, with a young family, many women put the career on the back burner, hence the lack of women in boardrooms.  

This is true, but fortunately for me, I had support to give me the opportunity to decide, and I felt that it was time for another challenge, and nothing had happened yet to turn me off of HR, so when it was time to get back to work again, I cast around for my next HR role. One in particular stood out as a new challenge, Bilfinger. I think you’re right about the sky-diving mentality, I had never worked in the industrial sector, the nearest I had got was at the development production at GSK. I was recruited initially by the HR Director for Industrial in Germany, Brigitte Schraetzenstaller-Rauch and in all, I went through five or six interviews, a lot by any standards. But I thought, it was an exciting looking business, and there was lots of change ahead, and I couldn’t wait to get stuck in. A few months after joining from a centralised to a divisional structure, and I now look after the oil and gas division. In terms of HR responsibility, there are hundreds of legal entities across Bilfinger and the move to Divisions was some help in explaining how the business worked as a whole. This is what I needed to bring to the business in terms of HR planning. In my particular Divisions, Oil and Gas, one of the big pluses is that people are really pragmatic, they want to get on, they’re not fazed by change and they’re used to dealing with a lean infrastructure and how to makes things work to the best of your ability – it was really refreshing dealing with a new mind-set. Strategically, it is about ensuring we have talent and succession. Tactically, it’s about the business, the changing markets, new technologies and customer needs and expectations, and of course, there are huge changes in oil and gas, and bringing HR people into strategic conversations as we set about building our workforce for the changing needs of tomorrow.

Do you think the sector has been caught napping in terms of the changes that have come along and impacted.  

It’s not that they haven’t been considering what is happening in the sector, but what is typical is the here and now is so absorbing, the challenges of staying competitive, the impact of constant change and adhering to all the policies, it’s difficult to step back and think about the future. This business is a good example, it has grown exponentially, but when you have that fast growth, you deliver, but you don’t have the luxury of stepping back and saying “we’re getting by, but how do we invest and forward plan”?

There seems to be two big pressures, firstly we hear about depleting resources regarding traditional oil and gas, and then you have all of the negativity about wind, nuclear, fracking etc. Against that backdrop it must be impossible to plan ahead.  

The industry is in a peculiar place for sure, and it’s really about how brave you will be in terms of looking at the next stage and where to invest You have to continue with your existing market and value what existing staff do, so it’s really about evolving that and moving forward. The structures are there, but they need improving and that’s a luxury they haven’t had before. We need energy from somewhere, and it is an unavoidable truth that every option has negative connotations. As service and resource providers to the industry, our customers set the pace and the agenda. If we look at my areas of responsibility, oil and gas, these are tough markets. We all know what has happened to the price of oil, and so for us the provision of resources and skills is about efficiency, affordability and relevant skills in areas such as maintenance, and that is taking our commitment and time. In forward planning meetings, is the future discussed? Absolutely, of course, we have had detailed strategy sessions at leadership level and we have a voice. It’s not just what we think from an HR perspective, but from a business perspective. We are really trying hard to galvanise that and it’s working. If I look at some of the other businesses, the same things are happening there – some parts we are planning on a few years ahead, some things will be happening in the next one or two years. Some of it is further away such as the skills for nuclear technology, and there will be a lot of political implications there. There is urgency, rather than panic, but urgent it is! There is real recognition of a need to plan, and there is no point claiming ignorance when, inevitably, tomorrow arrives.

Skills pipeline must be a serious consideration, attracting young people into engineering is proving to be a significant challenge.  

It is, our workforce is mainly male, many are 50 plus, and it is a concern. As we look ahead, the demographics will not get better unless we, as a whole industry, build the bridges from education into the wider working world. Like so many organisations, we want to focus on developing apprentices and graduates. But for us there are serious practicalities – it’s hard to send an unqualified apprentice to an oil platform, but we are working on how we can overcome these difficulties. Talent pipeline is unquestionably a central piece of work and going back to what I said about bridges to education, that is critical for our sector and engineering as a whole. Then there is the fact that girls regularly beat boys in GCSE Science subjects and Maths, and yet there is a big drop off in those that go on to A level and then a big drop off of women doing these subjects at University, and women in science related careers. There are numerous conferences and articles about getting people into engineering, and this is always brought up and the question usually goes unanswered. It is a massive issue of cultures and stereotypes and perceptions about sectors where engineering is central. Schools need to be encouraging interest in engineering and other STEM subjects, but the biggest influence to win over is parents. As a sector, we are poor at describing this and we need to get better, now! Employers need to be more active and it has to be a well-funded, resourced and consistent push. If it’s left to a faceless industry, it doesn’t work and I think that’s what we have done wrong in the past. We need our engineers to go to schools, colleges and universities and tell them about projects they work on. I think also, Government needs to look at how schools are adjudicated for effectiveness – if it is about how many students go to university that’s cutting out a whole load of people that could be channelled into vocational training in tech and engineering. Not having a degree doesn’t mean you can’t be successful. Again, this is our culture, so it’s about that early positive reinforcement, we need to make things like maths interesting. Is it the media? Partly some of it is peer pressure, so you have to challenge those assumptions.

What is next for Bilfinger as a business and HR's efforts and objectives?  

The business as a whole is focused on expanding to become the leading industrial services provider. Looking at my remit across oil and gas, our plans are very much designed to maintain our strong performance and reputation in our traditional markets, such as offshore, while enabling us to become the onshore life-cycle partner of choice and expand into new energy markets. It’s obvious that the sector faces a number of challenges right now. In order to get to where we want to be, we need to ensure we can adapt well and respond quickly to the needs of our clients, so we can be competitive in the market. From a HR perspective, this means enabling the business to offer the right skills and the right workforce options. Sometimes I read pieces in the HR media and get downhearted at the continual focus on how to ensure HR has a board level voice within an organisation. What we really need to focus on is being relevant, getting our hands dirty and proactively helping the business achieve its objectives, rather than just sitting back and turning the handle. The oil and gas sector has been profitable for a long period, but businesses like ours now need to rethink their offering to clients. Increasing flexibility will be one of our key initiatives moving forward so we can help the business adapt to the new dynamics of the market. What we need to do as HR professionals is work closely with our operation teams, current clients and potential customers in new bids to provide them with a customised workforce solution, or a menu of options, that best suits their needs. Being able to incorporate this flexibility will be the key to staying competitive. Another important objective for us is to commercialise our teams. We have some high-performing, highly-skilled staff working across our businesses doing an excellent job for a range of different clients, but the goal for us a range of different deals and approaches our management teams need to handle, and we need to ensure they have the right skill sets to understand every part of a certain contract so they can deliver value for us and for the client. A new training and development programme will play a big part in this, ensuring our employees are not only learning new skills, but adding to their experience by working across a variety of different contracts. Added to this, change management is set to be key as we look to transform how we operate, together with leadership standards and succession management to make sure we’re clear on what it takes to deliver success across our businesses. Looking forward, the future is certainly bright. I am immensely proud of my HR colleagues and I see them making a big difference on a daily basis. Our teams are regularly out in the field visiting clients and supporting colleagues on new and existing Sites to resolve issues quickly when they see that something isn’t working as it should be. This is incredibly important in making sure they truly understand what our employees do and the issues our clients face, meaning that when they need to apply policies and procedures, they know exactly what the impact will be.

How would you summarise your career journey to this point?  

For me, being open to change and not getting too comfortable has been key throughout my career. I have been in roles where this has been an important asset, and it also resonates well with where we are currently with Bilfinger, in that being open to change will be critical in how we grow the business in both the short and long term.

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