THE North Sea oil and gas industry may have to recruit 40,000 people over the next 20 years amid huge changes in the sector but the size of the workforce could shrink by a much bigger number a study has found.

The findings hold out the prospect the industry will create thousands of high value jobs as advances in technology create the demand for a new kind of North Sea worker.

They will be studied with interest as the North Sea industry emerges from the brutal downturn that started in 2014 and led to oil and gas firms shedding 70,000 jobs.

Read more: Expert report highlights challenges facing key oil and gas industry

The study by industry training body OPITO and Robert Gordon University found around 10,000 people will need to be recruited in emerging digital roles that don’t exist today in areas such as data analytics and robotics.

There is great excitement in the industry about the potential to use high-tech solutions such as drones to help slash the cost of operating in the North Sea.

Read more: Technology pioneers chosen to help transform North Sea oil industry

However, at least 80,000 workers are expected to leave the industry as fields run dry, people retire and some work is automated.

The authors reckon total workforce numbers will fall to 130,000 in 2035 from around 170,000 in a best case scenario.

But workforce numbers could shrink to 65,000 unless oil and gas firms improve their performance in the North Sea sufficiently, win more export business and manage to diversify into other energy businesses.

“If the industry can work together to achieve ambitions around production and energy diversification, tens of thousands more roles can be safeguarded and our industry will continue to be one of the key industrial sectors in the UK for years to come,” said OPITO chief executive John McDonald.

He said the findings underlined the need for companies to work with government and the education sector to develop a strategy to ensure the North Sea industry has the skills required for the future.

This will involve recruiting new people and helping existing employees to gain new skills.

“As the industry emerges from the downturn, it is crucial that we take a longer term look at the future UK oil and gas skills requirements,” said Mr McDonald. “A new skills strategy will help us to take action now to prepare for emerging roles and ensure the existing workforce is being given opportunities to up-skill.”

The oil and gas industry will have to compete with other sectors for the best candidates in areas such as artificial intelligence.

The report says the industry must become a more pro-active adopter of new technology and innovation, with sectors such as retail and banking quicker to adapt to the opportunities presented by the technology revolution.

Noting estimates there may be 20 billion barrels to be recovered from the North Sea, the UKCS Workforce Dynamics Review by OPITO and RGU report highlights the challenges facing the industry in what is seen as a relatively high cost area.

Many fields are mature and lots of the remaining reserves are held in small pools.

“A significant number of fields will reach the end of their life resulting in increased decommissioning activity,” notes the report.

“Combined with a drive for a lower carbon economy and an increased use of technology and automation, the potential impact on the number and types of jobs required to support the industry ... could be material.”

The report considers three scenarios based on production forecasts made by the Oil and Gas Authority.

The best case assumes the Vision 2035 plan to maximise recovery from the North Sea developed by the OGA and the Oil & Gas UK trade body is achieved, firms grow exports significantly and diversify successfully into other energy sectors.

The worst case assumes North Sea activity declines in line with current trends without growth in other areas compensating.