ONE of the fastest growing sectors of the North Sea - subsea activity - is being threatened by an acute shortage of skilled engineers.
As a result, trade body Subsea UK is mounting a campaign to raise the profile of the industry in order to boost the numbers wanting to work in it.
The industry association says it needs to get the message across that subsea offers some of Scotland's most exciting career opportunities, with member firms developing space-age technology under water. The aim is to give the subsea industry the same profile and appeal as NASA.
The trade body - which represents 130 companies operating in the industry - is looking for government help to establish a subsea centre of excellence.
Subsea UK is also targeting other industries as a source of poaching new talent and warns that the North Sea industry is in danger of losing out to countries such as Norway and Brazil.
David Pridden, chief executive, says: "A recent study revealed that the UK leads the way in the global subsea oil and gas industry. However, the challenges of low profile, skills shortages and the development of new technology are constraining our ability to capitalise on a market which is set to treble in the next few years.
"But if urgent action is taken, we are confident that we can retain our place at the forefront of a global market which is about to undergo explosive growth."
The subsea industry, which involves technology operating remotely under the world's oceans, will soon be responsible for recovering almost 40 per cent of the remaining fuel reserves in the North Sea. And with much of the world's reserves lying in more marginal fields, many under depths of more than 4,000 metres, subsea technology provides the only viable and safe way of recovering them and ensuring security of supply.
Pridden says: "Subsea is one of the most exciting industries to be in but we need to get that message out there. We want people to think of subsea in the same way they think about NASA. It is an incredibly complex and challenging sector with rewarding and long-term career opportunities, but few are aware of this.
"We are urging for collaboration between the oil and gas industry and the government to build the world's first subsea centre of excellence, which would attract the best people from around the world, promote and foster the development of new technology and provide the bedrock for innovation and expansion in the UK science base."
The centre would not just be aimed at oil and gas but also the renewable energy sector, oceanology, defence and telecommunications. "Oil and gas subsea expertise is already being used by telecommunications companies in the laying of fibre-optic cables under the seabed, and our technology is being adapted for use in the defence and oceanology industries.
"It could also play a huge role in speeding up and solving the challenges of marine renewables but there is, to date, little evidence of cross-fertilisation between these sectors."
While accepting that such a centre may be some time away, Subsea UK is taking immediate action to address one of the most acute challenges - that of skills shortages caused by an ageing workforce, coupled with a lack of young people coming into science and engineering careers.
The new initiative to help the sector attract and develop people is being funded by some of the main players in the sector - BP, Acergy, JP Kenny and Technip. In the campaign's first year it aims to recruit and train 100 engineers from other industries and recruit an additional 100 engineering graduates. At the heart of the initiative will be a campaign to encourage 10,000 school pupils to study science and maths and inspire them to consider a career in subsea.
"If the UK is to remain at the forefront of the subsea sector and capitalise on the global opportunities, we must bring in new talent," says Pridden. "This initiative will make it easier for all organisations - big and small - to attract and train mature entrants and new graduates. By working together across the sector, we can showcase the breadth of career opportunities and recruit and train much more efficiently."
In order to recruit quality engineers from other industries, the initiative will target engineers already working in areas such as manufacturing, aerospace, marine and construction.
Pridden says: "In simple terms, this initiative is about promoting the exciting opportunities available in the sector so that mature engineers as well as young engineers will be attracted to it.
"Basically the UK subsea industry needs fresh talent and a centre of excellence to ensure other countries do not steal our place as world leaders."
One producer which is backing Subsea UK's drive to raise the profile of thesubsea industry to overcome skills shortages is Total.
Roland Festor, managing director of Total Exploration and Production UK said: "Globally, Total is one of the biggest users of subsea technology. Aberdeen is an international centre of subsea expertise and our presence here enables the transfer of technology to our operations worldwide.
"In the UK, subsea technology has been the key to the development of the remote and marginal fields in the Alwyn area. For example, the Nuggets development was only possible with a 60km subsea 'tie-back' to the Alwyn North platform. This has extended the longevity of this asset and helped to maintain production of hydrocarbons."