Haskel, which employs about 70 people in its Sunderland factory, is a world leader in high pressure products and liquid and gas transfer.
It has played a major role in the offshore oil and gas sector and in the boom years preceding 2015, Steve Learney’s was one of the voices warning about the acute shortage of skilled engineers. But in 2015, pressure eased for offshore.
He explains: “The most significant thing is that, since the collapse in the oil and gas industry a couple of years ago, it has been an awful lot easier to get the skills that we need and there has been a lot less pressure. But despite that, we have continued to increase our pay rates in line with the market by about 2% to 3% per year.’’ Now, as the oil price recovers, so will the demand for skilled staff.
“We expect oil and gas market to start to tighten up pretty quickly, certainly over the course of this year and the early parts of next year, maybe not 2015 levels but not far off. I expect at that point we will see pressure on salaries with our own existing staff as companies start to rehire.’’
He cites one customer, a global company with operations in Aberdeen and the North East, which is planning to increase its total workforce by about a third, or 90 employees, mostly engineers.
However, even if oil and gas returns to its pre-2015 levels, it is a less important market now for Haskel, to the extent that oil and gas has gone from making up 55% of total income to just under a third, while the business has grown.
Learney says: “We have penetrated a lot more into defence and into aerospace and most recently – over the last two years – the vast majority of our hires have been for hydrogen.
“We started the process of looking at hydrogen 11 years ago and the Haskel business in the UK is the only business building equipment specifically for hydrogen fuelling stations and that has been a big investment for us over the past two years and I see that continuing. I have two open positions I’m looking for in hydrogen right now – one in engineering and one in sales.’’
Hydrogen can be used to fuel electric vehicles, and Haskel is undertaking considerable R&D, with three engineers in Sunderland and two in the US looking at refuelling and others looking at design specifications and technical specifications for refuelling stations.
“The business is growing dramatically,’’ adds Learney. “We’re about to receive an order for 11 stations in China and very soon after that we are expecting several out of South Korea. About half of the total operating stations in Japan are supplied by us.
“Over the next three years I expect to be making significantly more investment in hydrogen refuelling in the Sunderland area, not necessarily to support Sunderland or UK business but I need that anyway for Europe and Asia.’’
But hydrogen technology represents a great opportunity for the region, which not only has the necessary engineering and technical skills, honed in the offshore industry, but also a ready supply of hydrogen, which is a by-product of many of the Teesside chemical processes.