In the first of our role model series for the year, we are so pleased to share our conversation with Katy Barr, an OIM for TotalEnergies who shared with us her insights into working offshore, leading her team through an emergency and the importance of building your network and going outside your comfort zone to find career opportunities.
Katy holds a Masters of Engineering, Chemical Engineering with honours from Newcastle University.
She worked as a Graduate Engineer at Petrofac before moving on to Process Engineer at PSN.
She moved to TotalEnergies where she has held several key roles both on and offshore based, including: SMART Room Lead, Production and Wells Superintendent and Operations Superintendent.
She is currently an Offshore Installation Manager for Dunbar with TotalEnergies.
When you were at school what did you want to be when you grew up?
I initially wanted to be a vet and I did a few weeks work experience in a veterinary practice when I was a teenager. I remember one of the vets telling me I shouldn’t do it unless I was absolutely 100% sure it was what I wanted. Looking back this seems the most ridiculous advice to give a 15-year-old. I don’t think any of us are ever 100% sure about our career plans, at any age!
During school were you attracted to STEM subjects more than others?
My school were very supportive of my ambitions, and they made arrangements for me to study three sciences and maths, which at the time was unusual for anyone to do so. All very different but I enjoyed them equally – biology because I had a private lesson twice a week with the teacher, it was very relaxed, and we’d chat and drink cups of tea while learning. Chemistry and maths I loved as it suited my problem-solving nature.
I did struggle with physics at school initially, my teacher was not great, and it was well known he didn’t like teaching girls. My parents arranged a private tutor for me while I was doing my Highers. She was brilliant and really brought the subject to life for me, it’s amazing the difference a good teacher can make.
How did you decide what were you going to study at university and where?
I studied at Newcastle University. I’d grown up hearing stories of my dad and my aunts and uncles having an amazing time there in the seventies, my parents met there, and it sounded like a cool place to be. At the time it had just been voted European Capital of Culture, the Angel of the North had just been finished, the Quayside was being redeveloped. There was so much going on – and the university wasn’t bad either!
After I’d decided against veterinary science, I wasn’t sure what else I wanted to do. At that stage there wasn’t the same awareness or the advice regarding careers in STEM that there is now, and I ended up choosing medicine as it seemed like a good fit with my subjects. However, after a year of study I realised it wasn’t the career for me so went to discuss my options. I was given a university prospectus on a Friday and was told to pick something else over the weekend. I had a coffee with the head of the School of Chemical Engineering on the Monday and was enrolled by the Tuesday and I can honestly say I never looked back. I loved it.
How did you find moving to Aberdeen to pursue your career? Any advice for someone who is relocating for work?
I had grown up just outside Aberdeen and moved away when I was 17 determined I would never live back here. However, the opportunities afforded by the energy industry for engineering graduates were hard to ignore and I moved back at 23. By that time, I had lost contact with many of my school friends, so it did very much feel like starting from scratch. My best advice would be to say yes to everything, even if you don’t feel like it, you’ll soon enjoy it when you are there. Invite people you work with for a lunchtime walk or coffee to get to know them away from their desks, especially if they are also new or not from the area.
Also join a group or a club for your hobby, you’ll meet people you have something in common with straight away. I ride horses and in 2011 took a chance on an advert for a riding club I found online, I’m still there 12 years later and have made some great friends along the way.
Since moving back I’ve come to love Aberdeen and the Shire. The city is just the right size with lots of good restaurants and bars and plenty of events, shows and gigs happening. Aberdeen Beach and the city parks are beautiful and wherever you are you are only about 30 minutes from the Aberdeenshire countryside.
How was your first trip offshore, how have you seen the offshore environment change since this?
My first trip offshore was to the Heather platform for Petrofac, it was a weekend visit, and I was warmly welcomed and felt very comfortable. I’d done a student placement at Lindsey Oil Refinery in Humberside and the environment and culture of both sites were similar. My next few trips were on drilling rigs in the Southern North Sea, which was VERY different, things on board were much more rough and ready. I was the only female there and found it quite an intimidating environment.
I’ve been a regular offshore for the last 16 years and in that time the environment has changed hugely. The workforce is slowly becoming more diverse and the sites more inclusive. Newer sites have been designed with separate changing rooms and toilets for women. Sanitary bins and products are now available in cabins, PPE is available in female specific sizes and shapes.
There have been cultural changes too and offshore feels much more like a professional workplace now rather than what once could feel like a boys’ locker room. There is a strong focus offshore on health and well being – healthier food in the galley and the introduction of mental health first-aiders has been a real positive change.
As an OIM offshore now, how does your leadership style promote an inclusive place of work?
Traditionally offshore was a hierarchical environment whereas I prefer to work in a more collaborative style. While I am ultimately in charge, I seek input from the team, and we discuss options and whether there are better or safer ways of doing things. My leadership style is inclusive and empathetic, and I ensure that everyone gets a chance to input making space for those who are quieter or in the minority to speak up.
I use my knowledge and influence to work with the TotalEnergies Women’s Network (TWICE), the onshore teams and the OIMs from other assets to ensure all the Company assets are welcoming places for everyone to work.
Any advice for anyone feeling apprehensive about their first trip offshore?
Ideally, try and buddy up with someone who is going out on the same flight as you, or speak to someone who has spent time offshore before. Be honest and tell them it’s your first trip and you want to know what to expect – get them to talk you through the process from heliport check-in to arrival and life on the installation. I’ve been asked all sorts of questions over the years from whether you can bring full size toiletries (you can) to whether there are hairdryers in the cabins (there’s not).
Check if you can go to the heliport and try on survival suits ahead of time which can save time and hassle on the day of your mobilisation – you company may be able to arrange this.
When you get offshore there don’t hesitate to ask questions if there is anything you aren’t sure about. Although it can feel daunting, it is generally a very friendly place and people want to help each other out.
Finally, make sure you bring more stuff than you think you need – there’s nothing worse than an unexpected weather delay when you’ve finished your book or run out of shampoo!
Do you have any ideas about the energy industry can improve diversity in the offshore workforce?
Across the industry companies, including TotalEnergies, are doing a lot of work to encourage more young people into STEM careers and raising awareness of the variety of offshore careers available – from the OPITO Apprenticeship scheme, engineering roles, specialist vendors, catering, medics all the way through to management – which will certainly increase the pool of diverse candidates. Articles such as this and speaking events highlighting the diversity of people working offshore and demystifying offshore life will also help.
From a family-life perspective, companies could consider introducing options such as offshore job share or creating regular rota gap-week cover positions to encourage those who may previously have ruled out offshore work.
What have you found most rewarding about your career to date?
In 2021 I was working offshore on the Gryphon FPSO when the asset suffered an engine room fire. Leading the team through the fall out and recovery from that event was simultaneously one of the hardest and one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. Nothing in my job description could have prepared me for it, however the crew needed a leader in that moment, and I stepped up. While it was an incredibly tough time, I am glad I was able to do that for the asset.
Thankfully, these events happen very infrequently and in general offshore management is a rewarding role. I love that I can positively influence the culture on the asset and in ensure all members of the crew onboard feel valued and that they have a voice; be it on HSE, technical issues, welfare, career development or something else.
Do you have any advice for other seeking to forward their careers in the energy industry?
Getting out to where the work is actually being done – be it offshore, a wind farm, a workshop or a client office – is invaluable in understanding what and who you are working with and where the issues are.
In terms of career progression, someone once said to me you can’t see what doors lead off the next room until you step into it. This, and routinely putting yourself out of your comfort zone, is some of the best advice I have ever received, and I would strongly encourage anyone in the industry to take chances and opportunities when they come up, even if they seem scary or it is not clear where they are going to lead.