More job cuts likely for oil and gas sector, say observers

While crude prices have made steady gains to levels near US$50 a barrel in recent months, that is "unlikely to trigger a sharp increase in global exploration and development", says Mr Biswas of IHS Global Insight.
While crude prices have made steady gains to levels near US$50 a barrel in recent months, that is "unlikely to trigger a sharp increase in global exploration and development", says Mr Biswas of IHS Global Insight.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

Recovery from slump still some time off, say observers; 15,000 jobs may have been lost last year

Against the backdrop of one of the worst slumps the global oil and gas industry has seen in decades, a senior engineer, Mr Lee (not his real name), was retrenched last September, barely nine months into his new job with a United States-listed offshore equipment provider here.

"It was expected," said the 33- year-old Singaporean, who has been in the industry for seven years.

The first telltale signs, he noted, came when the company began to freeze salaries, before it stopped filling vacant positions and renewing workers on contracts.

"It was very obvious that the industry was in a downturn and that it was getting worse," said Mr Lee, who had joined the firm after his former employer - a global oil and gas player - announced plans to move its operations to Malaysia. "At least my family and I had time to prepare for it."

He was but one of the thousands of workers in the oil and gas industry here who lost their jobs last year, as firms tried to slash costs amid the oil price collapse.

Estimates by consultants and analysts suggest that up to 15,000 jobs may have been lost in the past year. This comes as global floating production system provider BW Offshore, for instance, is said to be laying off one-third of its 300 Singapore employees in "an extensive cost-reduction programme".

And American engineering, procurement and construction conglomerate Chicago Bridge & Iron has reportedly trimmed its workforce from several hundred down to just 100, and is said to be looking to exit Singapore.

Home-grown firms have not been immune. Keppel Corporation cut its global headcount by 6,000 and its Singapore sub-contract workforce by 7,900 last year. Since the start of this year, it has cut its global workforce by a further 2,800 people, of which 500 are from its Singapore yards, it disclosed in its first-quarter results last month.

Sembcorp Marine shed between 3,000 and 4,000 of its staff last year, mostly foreign workers employed by sub-contractors.

The estimated 15,000 job losses, which include those from Keppel and SembMarine, take into account contract workers, noted Mr Mick Aw, senior partner at shipping advisory firm Moore Stephens. He said many global oil and gas firms with operations here have also announced worldwide job cuts without specifying location, "though Singapore will likely be affected".

Ancillary job losses in support services expected

Oil major Royal Dutch Shell, following its merger with BG Group, confirmed earlier this year that it is cutting a total of 10,000 jobs across its global operations by the end of the year.

In terms of Singaporeans and permanent residents, data from the Ministry of Manpower showed that redundancies in industries closely related to oil and gas activities, including that of marine and offshore, rose by about 1,000 last year.

More job losses are set to follow, said industry watchers.

These additional reductions will come as "more contractors are being 'demobilised' from their last project and there are no new projects for them to be reassigned to", said Mr Dhirendra Shantilal, board director at technical recruitment agency Fircroft.

Mr Aw estimates that a few hundred more people could lose their jobs by the end of the year. "The offshore support vessel sector needs to deal with a huge supply issue. It has been growing at a very fast - arguably excessive - pace over the past few years and the reversal we now see may be just the beginning," he said.

"There has to be a major shakeout and things will have to get worse before they can get better."

Mr Aw in March led the liquidation team for Singapore-based Dolphin Geophysical, a supplier of marine geophysical services, after its Norway-based parent Dolphin Group filed for bankruptcy.

Around 160 to 170 employees at the company were retrenched.

"In addition to direct job losses in oil and gas, there will also be ancillary job losses in the support services, such as oil and gas financing," said Mr Aw.

Standard Chartered Bank, for instance, axed at least half a dozen oil and gas advisory banking roles late last year, including four managing directors based in Singapore, according to a Reuters report citing unnamed sources.

While crude prices have made steady gains to levels near US$50 a barrel in recent months, Mr Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist at IHS Global Insight, believes it is "unlikely to trigger a sharp increase in global exploration and development".

This means the Singapore marine and offshore engineering sector will "continue to face substantial headwinds over the next 18 months to two years", he said.

In the same vein, Ms Kum Soek Ching, head of South-east Asia research at Credit Suisse Private Banking Asia-Pacific, expects that a recovery is some time off.

"The oil price recovery has largely been due to production outage rather than demand recovery. It will be a long while before we see any sign of recovery in order- book momentum," she said.

As oil and gas companies scale down on costs, some - such as global names Technip, Subsea 7 and McDermott - are shifting or have shifted their operations from Singapore to cheaper locations such as Kuala Lumpur.

But at least one firm is staying put. Mr Sateesh Dev, president and chief executive of Modec Offshore Production Systems, refuted claims in a news report that said the firm is drawing up a list of staff to be laid off in Singapore.

"We have no plans to lay off any staff in Singapore," he told The Straits Times. "We came to Singapore for good reason. There are efficiencies here that are hard to find elsewhere."

Mr Aw said: "Singapore, in our view, has a more stable political environment and stronger support services in areas such as banking, insurance, legal matters, financing and capital markets. We believe that cost will not be the only factor in the equation."

As for Mr Lee, he managed to land a new job in the public service sector managing infrastructure projects - though not before having spent six months out of work. "Several of my former colleagues are still looking for work after being retrenched. I count myself very fortunate to have been able to secure my current job."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 23, 2016, with the headline 'More job cuts 'likely' for oil and gas sector'. Print Edition | Subscribe