Stephen Wilson is the sole employee at Matrix Composites & Engineering’s office in Newcastle in the north-east of England. The company, headquartered in Perth, Western Australia, provides solutions for the offshore oil and gas industry. He jokes that whenever he moves office, the whole workforce of his Newcastle venture moves with him.

Things are about to change soon though as Mr Wilson, working as Matrix’s regional development manager since the end of 2012, is charged with developing the company’s first European office. By the second half of 2013, Mr Wilson is planning to hire three new employees (or as he puts it, quadruple the company’s European workforce) and move into an office along the banks of Newcastle’s River Tyne.

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The size of Matrix’s operation in Newcastle may not be mind-boggling, but the task ahead is. According to Mr Wilson, the company is planning to double its revenue to $290m in the next five years. One-third of that share is projected to come from Europe, based on operations run from Newcastle. “There was really no better alternative for us than Newcastle. In and around the city you can find the right people, academic institutions and companies to work with,” says Mr Wilson.

North-east network

While Matrix is still taking its first steps in Newcastle, BPP-Tech, a company that provides consulting services to the hydrocarbon and renewables sector, has recently finished settling down in north-east England. “We only moved here in November 2011, but setting up operations here was not difficult. We have been co-operating with companies in the area and we have a good network here,” says Steve Proud, BPP-Tech’s principal engineer.

As with BPP-Tech, a growing number of companies catering to the offshore oil and gas industry are discovering Newcastle. Nevertheless, there is still a big void in this sector of Newcastle’s economy. “This city has everything except for companies that actually do the oil drilling,” says Mr Proud.

Newcastle remains off the radar of the oil companies, mostly because of the city's relatively close proximity to Aberdeen in Scotland, which is known historically as a pillar of the oil and gas industry in the UK. “We are a little bit in the shadow of Aberdeen. The north-east of England is where the supply chain for the oil and gas sector is, but because the big companies are not here, we are not immediately associated with the sector,” says Joanne Leng, deputy chief executive of NOF Energy, an economic development organisation based in Durham, a city located 30 kilometres south of Newcastle.

“We are trying to increase the region’s profile by meeting potential investors and telling them what the region can offer and show them what the supply chain here looks like,” says Ms Leng.

Business to business

Apart from beating the drum for north-east England, NOF Energy is also busy building links between local companies. According to Ms Leng’s estimates, the organisation arranges about 50 networking events annually, attended by more than 3000 delegates. Moreover, in November 2012, the organisation launched Military2Energy Careers Service, a programme aiming to introduce ex-military personnel to employers from the energy sector.

Neil Kirkbride, managing director of BEL Valves, a local company that designs and manufactures valves, actuators and controls for the oil and gas industry, praises NOF’s efforts in supporting the local industry. “It does a really good job in business-to-business networking and there are some impressive hires coming out of [the Military2Energy] programme,” says Mr Kirkbride, who sits on NOF’s energy board and in the past served as the organisation’s chairman.

The expansion of the labour pool in north-east England, thanks to programmes such as Military2Energy, is no small feat. All experts interviewed for this article admitted there is a general shortage of staff in the sector worldwide, connected with the increase in shale and offshore drilling globally.

Newcastle is no exception to that problem. “A company settling down here cannot expect to find employees immediately,” says Mr Kirkbride. He quickly adds, however, that carrying out such a task in Newcastle is still “considerably easier than elsewhere”.

Theory into practice

Newcastle has an advantage over other locations in that many local companies (including BEL Valves) offer apprenticeships. These are proving popular among young people raised in the city and surrounding areas, which has a long maritime and mining heritage. The industry also co-operates with Newcastle University’s School of Marine Science and Technology, which offers graduate degrees in Subsea Engineering and Management and Pipeline Engineering.

Julia Race, a senior lecturer in pipeline engineering at the university says that both programmes are “very industry-driven”. Indeed, the school’s curriculum has been created in co-operation with NOF Energy and 40% of all courses are taught by industry experts. “We do not directly place students but, thanks to co-operation with the industry, they are on an ‘extended job interview’ while studying here,” says Ms Race.

“The UK generally has a shortage of skilled engineers. Yet it is not only easier to tap into the talent pool here, but also to get people to relocate here and stay,” says Catherine Walker, inward investment director at Newcastle Gateshead Initiative, a public-private partnership focusing on marketing the region.

Newcastle is compact and affordable, has a nightlife that is renowned across the UK, but is also close to a picturesque countryside. Newcastle’s residents are also a potential draw for employers. Nicknamed 'Geordies', they are known across the UK for their swagger and friendliness. How can oil majors resist?