Plan for the future

What happens when the workers retire? asks Virginia Hilliard

Virginia Hilliard
Plan for the future

Australia has an ageing working population. In 2016, >55% of independent contractors were 45 or over (Australian Bureau of Statistics2016 data). 

And Australia's not alone. In the UK, >30% of employed people were 55 and over in June 2015 (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development), while in Canada, 43% of the working population is over 45 (Statistics Canada 2016 data). In the US, 21% are 55 and over (US Bureau of Labor Statistics 2016 data).

Last week I spoke at the Australian Drilling Industry Association's conference, attended by water-well, mineral, geotechnical and environmental drilling representatives from Australia and New Zealand. 

I took a straw poll of those in the room to see what the age demographic looks like in our industry. 

"How many in the room have under 10 years in the industry?" I asked. No hands up at all.

Up to 20 years? About 2% of the audience.

Up to 30 years? About 20%.

Up to 40 years? About 45%.

Up to 50 years?  About 30%.      

60 years? About 2%.

70 years?  No hands in the room, but at least one at the conference still actively working.

Retired from the industry? About 1%.

Retired and still working as a consultant? Half of those retired.

While the topics at that session may have skewed the audience participant group towards managers, it was apparent as people looked about themselves in the room that it makes a frightening future if we don't plan ahead.

Drilling is a physical industry, and there are other considerations besides having a wise and knowledgeable head. 

So what can we do to keep the wisdom in the industry when the retirees actually retire?

Firstly, we can share what we know at an industry level through:

  • Associations that provide a forum to exchange experiences and provide professional development;
  • International links to the industry elsewhere;
  • Journals, papers, technical sessions and conferences that share the information and expertise;
  • Authoritative reference material and publications like The Drilling Manual from ADITC;
  • Social media networks to help find others with similar issues;
  • Adding a training and recognition/qualification structure adopted by the industry, which contractors and contract principals commit to and engage with it.

We need to make sure we pass knowledge on through recording, training and mentoring. Standard operating procedures and company procedures move the information from one head to another via paper. We should develop skills and recognise skills by providing qualifications - this assists retention, but even if you train them and they leave, it increases the pool of personnel and level of industry expertise. Also, engage in the training and mentoring process, so others also see the pathway and value it.

We should plan to keep people in the industry by growing those we have. People remember their mentors - both good and bad. There should be a succession plan in place in a business of any size; a small business may have Dave, and Dave Jr or Davina Jr, but resist the temptation not to share. Companies should recognise and grow expertise, and then hand it over; once you've done that, keep your own hands off the levers. Also, pass on pride as well as expertise.

In our contract-based and cyclical industry, people will be let go, but can we do it better? You can offer a qualification and keep good records in case you're called on later as a referee; this helps people create a path in the industry and loyalty to the employer.

A changing generational attitude expects change of employment over life, and our industry requires it. Let them go well and they may come back with extra skills later.

We should plan to take on new people and train them generously, offering advice and training. We now fish in the same recruitment pool as construction, defence and agriculture - can we be smarter?

When you recruit, think carefully, do I need another me or another person? There's no reason in an increasingly mechanised and urban environment not to recruit women, someone of smaller stature, and so on. Consider recruiting through a digital search as it takes away the bias.

Do you have someone in the office who'd like to be outside? Don't ignore existing support staff. People who know the clerical aspects know about the business already and may be happy to transition to other areas.

Avoid the industry recruitment mistakes of the past. If you say "Come and do it tough for two years for a lot of money and you'll have the house, the boat…", that's what people will do. You can't in fairness be surprised when at two years and a day, they up and leave.

Moreover, don't forget about the experienced workers from other sectors during cyclical change in the industry.

In the drilling industry we're proud of our skills and achievements for good reason, but we tend to be modestly quiet. Tell people, so more know about it.

Virginia Hilliard is the chief executive officer of the Australian Drilling Industry Training Committee (ADITC), which is based in Sydney, Australia. For more information visit: