As the performance of Industry improves and spills decrease, SMTs, OSROs, Regulators, and Oil and Gas Operators are all facing a lack of direct experience and knowledge when it comes to spill response. The recruiting and grooming of elite Responders for a large response organization is further challenged by a tight labor market that is increasingly occupied by a generation that demands accelerated advancement and growth. The Marine Spill Response Corporation (MSRC) is taking a new approach to identify, develop and retain Responder competencies and proficiencies, and to offer a career/development path in the absence of actual incidents.

The first element of this program provides a clear path for professional growth to satisfy the growing desire for advancement by replacing a time-based promotion system with one that is focused on performance. The second element requires a consistent methodology and framework of evaluation to ensure employees in a nationwide organization are measured and evaluated using the same standards. Replacing the focus on hard skills with soft skills during talent acquisition “fit factor” when hiring new Responders sets the tone for growth. The hard skills are easier to teach and develop, while soft skills like learning curiosity, collaboration, effective communication, problem solving, and decision making are the differentiators that shape an elite Responder.

Removing the emphasis on spill experience and replacing it with well-defined competency models that define abilities which can be demonstrated outside of spill incidents is essential to fostering professional growth in a Responder. These competencies include the technical skills that are required by each position and emphasize leadership abilities, teamwork, and commitment. Metrics and expectations must be defined at the right level of detail to provide Responders with the opportunity during steady state operations to demonstrate abilities in a variety of scenarios that mirror those needed in spill response.

As the operational performance of the oil and gas and maritime industries improves and the number of spills decrease, spill management teams (SMTs), oil spill removal organizations (OSROs), regulators and oil and gas operators are all facing a lack of direct experience and knowledge when it comes to spill response. The Marine Spill Response Corporation (MSRC) is taking a new approach to identify, develop and retain oil spill Responder (Responder) competencies and proficiencies in the absence of actual incidents. Removing the emphasis on spill response experience and replacing it with well-defined competency models that define abilities which can be demonstrated outside of spill incidents is essential to fostering professional growth in a Responder. It also develops elite Responders at a faster pace, providing experience in the leadership and supervisory roles that are needed on large-scale spill incidents.

The development and implementation of the Responder competency models had two main objectives: 1) to ensure that even junior Responders across our national organization have the required skills to perform supervisory spill response roles during an incident, and 2) to retain high-performing spill Responders and develop both their technical and leadership talent early, and at a pace suited to their aptitude and professional goals. One of the key challenges that MSRC is trying to address is the diminishing pool of experienced Responders upon whom we can rely in a large incident that requires participation from outside our organization. Today, the Responder workforce during a large incident is increasingly made up of individuals who have little to no spill response experience and who therefore require closer supervision and more on-the-job training. MSRC's role in a large-scale response is transitioning to a force multiplying agent that supervises groups of less experienced spill Responders.

The other key challenge MSRC is trying to address is maintaining a high performing national spill response workforce that not only has the specialized spill response knowledge and technical application experience but also the leadership skills to play that force multiplying role. Leadership skills are now expected of our junior level Responders: while they may not be supervising in their day-jobs, they will be expected to direct and supervise work during a response. Once MSRC has developed this talent, we need to retain it and progress it at a faster pace than we traditionally did when spill response experience was readily and widely available in the work force and when opportunities to learn and grow were abundant through real world spill incidents.

The solution to these challenges mandated that technical skills needed to be expanded and soft skills and leadership skills be introduced to a Responder's development and training plan much earlier in their career. To do this, MSRC had to identify and develop a consistent methodology and framework of weighted evaluation criteria that reflected specialized technical knowledge and leadership skills. The output produced was Responder competency matrices for Responders, Lead Responders, Master Responders and Senior Master Responders. The application of these Responder competencies also ensured that employees in a nationwide organization are measured and evaluated using the same standards so that they can be cascaded to respond to any spill scenario regardless of their home-base region.

Diminishing Real-World Spill Response Experience

According to data from the International Tanker Owners Pollution Federation (ITOPF), the statistics for tanker, combined carriers and barge fleets worldwide show a significant and steady decrease in spill occurrences and volumes. This can be attributed to several factors, including prevention measures incorporated into regulations developed and implemented at the state and federal level, such as alcohol and drug restrictions, and the pre-booming of vessels and facilities during transfer operations. Tanker spill data can be used as a proxy for other sectors of the oil and gas industry where similar decreases in spill incidents can be observed.

Reduced Pool of Experienced Responders

The success of regulatory action and subsequent reductions of spill instances and volumes have created an unintended consequence: a smaller pool of experienced Responders. A significantly lower number of spills has created a lack of opportunity to gain practical experience at the incident command level of a response, and the experience and competency of Responders in the field has dropped. This gap in experience has continued to grow at various professional levels. Recruiting and grooming elite Responders for a large response organization is further challenged by a tight labor market that is increasingly occupied by a generation that demands accelerated advancement and growth opportunities.

Also contributing to the growing gap of experience is the natural attrition of those who developed their skills through on-the-job, “real world” experience during the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, when spills were more frequent. Some management and command level openings have been backfilled by individuals who were at the field level and have been promoted within the industry. The gap at the field level has become more difficult to fill over time due to a highly competitive job market with record low unemployment. MSRC has been experiencing a shrinking application pool for the past five-plus years, and our peers report the same.

The application pool is further narrowed by shorter timeline recall expectations set to meet regulatory requirements. Tighter timeline recalls require individual Responders to be physically located in very specific areas and requires a Responder team to be dispersed over broader geographic areas, leaving little opportunity for Master Responders and entry-level Responders to be co-located in the same area. These geographically limiting requirements also affect retention of experienced Responders who may wish to relocate to an area outside of the acceptable response zone.

The central challenge to spill response capability that these conditions present is that the total experience pool to draw upon for a complex spill response is significantly reduced. Therefore, OSROs are required to ensure that Responders in senior positions are good leaders, teachers and mentors that can manage an overwhelmingly inexperienced response force. We can expect that the response workforce will be made up of Responders from organizations with limited OSRO classification, related industries and fresh recruits. Today, more leadership is required of Senior Responders to oversee and manage an effective response.

Unique Technical Skills Exist for Spill Responders

While industry and regulators focus on improvements in regulatory action and technological improvements, OSROs are focused on developing talent that can operate a wide range of equipment and apply response tactics for a broad spectrum of spill response scenarios. The breadth of knowledge for a spill Responder is far beyond mechanical operations, and effective Responders require hard skills that are unique to the OSRO industry and are not commonly transferrable from other professions. A junior Responder needs to grasp the application of a wide variety of tools and tactics to different marine environments and product types in varying weather conditions, especially with the increased oil and gas activity in the U.S. interior. Each type of crude that ranges from the characteristics of a lighter Bakken crude to heavier tar sands oil will behave very differently once they are introduced to a warm or cold marine environment with slow or fast currents. The understanding of fate and effect of these different crude types or refined products is key to a Responder's implementation of the most effective recovery tactics in a given scenario.

Furthermore, the correct deployment techniques can make or break an effective containment and recovery strategy. Different deployment techniques are applied to determining which of various types of boom should be utilized depending on current speed, identifying and deploying the most effective skimming technology for the type of product in a particular marine environment, and sourcing the best storage resources based on efficient logistics, cost, safety, disposal and decontamination. This is specialized knowledge that is not transferrable from other professions and needs to be learned. Inland response demands another body of specialized knowledge and the application of appropriate response tactics, including underflow dams and deflection and collection strategies in high current rivers, creeks and streams. Crude and refined products being transported via rail and pipeline have forced our organization to focus more attention on potential inland impacts and on mitigation/recovery strategies, as well as understand these products' behaviors in coastal areas during a spill.

To ensure that technical skills and specialized spill response knowledge are acquired, transferred and retained by MSRC's response force in a world with fewer spills, we have developed and implemented a more structured, rigorous, immersive training program delivered on a higher frequency rotation. The training content has been expanded not only to include greater technical content to cover the broader spill scenario types, but also to adopt a Learn, Do, Teach, Manage cycle. Those last two components are critical for preparing our junior responders for potential supervisory positions over contractors in a large spill response. Even if junior Responders are not in supervisory roles in their day jobs, they need to transition to those roles during an incident where MSRC Responders become the experienced force multiplying agents during a large scale response where the majority of the response force has limited experience.

Soft Skills that are Essential to Developing an Elite Responder

MSRC has been working towards a talent management program to identify, develop and retain Responder competencies and proficiencies, and offer a professional growth path in the absence of actual incidents. In evaluating trends in the performance and professional growth of newer Responders, it became clear that the possession of certain soft skills accelerated a Responder's ability to acquire and retain the required hard skills. Emphasizing the focus on soft skills during talent acquisition “fit factor” when hiring new Responders selects for individuals who possess the fundamental building blocks for professional growth in this environment. The hard skills are easier to teach and develop through rigorous training programs, while core soft skills including leadership, learning and curiosity, collaboration, effective communication, problem solving and decision making are the differentiators that shape an elite Responder at a much faster pace. The rationale for the central role of the core soft skills for Responders is described below.

  • Leadership: In certain geographical areas, regulatory requirements result in a more dispersed asset base. Shorter response timeframe requirements and a heavier reliance on contractor resources means that these individuals are regularly the first Responders on scene and often are required to act in a leadership capacity during initial response. A reliance on contractor assets and personnel require Responders to possess a level of confidence and skills to function effectively during an incident. This can be developed by using hands-on opportunities for Responders to take leadership roles during steady state, such as field deployment exercises that include contract personnel reporting directly to a Responder to accomplish specific objectives safely and in a timely manner.

  • Communication & Collaboration: Responders are constantly working with new, unfamiliar people, including customers, contractors and regulators. Numerous opportunities exist and are utilized for employees to work collaboratively with other facets of the industry during drills and exercises. These activities offer opportunities for the employee to be immersed in a scenario that resembles an actual incident and exposes the employee to the types of personal interactions that can occur during these events.

  • Problem Solving & Decision Making: Incidents typically occur during a crisis and require a significant amount of flexibility and problem solving. Responders need to be able to follow the preparedness plan as well as to adapt to deviating circumstances. Each incident will provide its own unique challenges and require using a level of creative problem solving while continuing to align with safety and process requirements. The ability to see alternatives that have been learned via hands-on experience and through using creativity, intuition and common sense are vital to success in the field. This can be evaluated by exposing the Responder to scenarios such as scripted field strategies that need to be vetted. Involvement in the vetting process for these strategies will force the employee to think outside the written plan and allows them the opportunity to “what if” the situation.

New Responder Competency Models

In addition to removing the emphasis on hard skills and response experience in acquiring new talent, MSRC developed new Responder Competency Models to manage and progress talent. (See Exhibits A, B, C and D at end of document.) These competency models offer a consistent methodology and framework of evaluation to ensure Responders in a nationwide organization are measured and assessed using the same standards. These competency models are hierarchical, and each competency is weighted in their order of importance at each level of Responder, Lead Responder, Master Responder and Senior Master. The metrics and expectations must be defined at the right level of detail to provide Responders with the opportunity during steady state operations to demonstrate abilities in a variety of scenarios that mirror those needed in spill response. This approach contrasts sharply to the previous professional assessment model where emphasis on mechanical aptitude, boat and operations, and years of spill response experience were the most important factors. These competency models weight soft skills the most heavily, and the number of required soft skill competencies grows as the Responder advances through the ranks.

To develop these competency models, a team of SME's made up of veteran and newer supervisory and managerial level Responders was convened to review Responder level job requirements and assess how they had evolved. The group performed a gap analysis comparing traditional role requirements to current expectations, which led to identifying specific competencies for each Responder level. They initially looked at the technical competencies and identified new skills that needed to be added and aligned on the relative weighting, keeping in mind that these would be applied consistently across all of MSRC's operating regions. For the remaining bulk of the assessment period, the group focused on identifying and assigning weight to soft skill competencies for safety leadership, delegation, coaching and mentorship.

To advance, an entry level Responder is provided the competency model for a Responder. He works with his Response Supervisor and a Master Responder to identify training opportunities to acquire the technical skills and demonstrate the soft skills. Each of these competencies must be demonstrated for the Responder to advance to Lead Responder. Talent is thus actively managed rather than put on autopilot through time-based promotion.

Retaining and Developing Talent: Removing the Timeline to Advance

Implementing these competency models to address the challenges of retention of experienced Responders and an increased need for leadership skills development in Responders, paired with the market demand for accelerated advancement opportunities, required MSRC to re-orient time-based professional advancement to performance-based. The previous timeline-based system held back those who demonstrated the capacity, capability, and drive to advance at a faster rate than the timeline allowed. The high performers who were on an advancement track could now achieve promotions as quickly as they could demonstrate the defined competencies for the next role. Remuneration has also been adjusted with regards to the updated performance assessment model, allowing those who do not choose to advance or those who are not ready to advance, but who still have demonstrated capacity in the competencies, to be rewarded through a performance merit system that works in parallel to the assessments performed for promotional consideration.

Implementing Responder Competency Models during Recruiting

During recruiting, rather than focusing on certifications, boat and mechanical experience, and spill response experience, MSRC is now focused on “fit” of the applicant's personal attributes with predetermined core soft skill competencies. This includes skills such as: demonstrating the ability to be a Safety Leader; engaging in professional, timely and clear communications; possessing strong organizational and problem-solving abilities; being a highly motivated, flexible team player/collaborative partner; and having a desire for professional growth and development. To best assess these competencies, a behavioral interview is conducted. This technique predicts on-the-job performance far more accurately than other interview methods. Behavioral interviewing is based on the premise that how a job candidate behaved in the past is the best predictor of how they will behave in the future. To elicit such information, a series of probing questions reveals whether candidates possess those qualities. The goal is to acquire new talent with higher potential to grow into elite Responders at a faster pace.

Examples of Teamwork behavioral questions:

  • Describe a project that required input from people at different levels/department/areas within the organization.

  • Share a rewarding team experience.

  • Tell me about a time you solved a problem as a team.

  • How would you motivate team members if you were working on a project together?

  • Describe a time when you had to work closely with someone whose personality was very different from yours.

  • Provide an example of a time you faced a conflict while working on a team. What were the circumstances and how did you handle the conflict?

  • Describe a time when you struggled to build a relationship with someone important. How did you overcome it?

  • Tell me about a time you wish you'd handled a situation differently with a co-worker.

  • Tell me about a time you needed to get information from someone who wasn't very responsive. What did you do?

  • Describe a time when you saw some problem and took the initiative to correct it even though it was outside your immediate role.

Application of Competency Models in Hiring and Performance Assessment

In order to prepare for use of the new model, individuals working in a capacity that would require the application of these metrics in performance assessments were given specialized training in the competency models. A trainer qualification standard and an assessor qualification standard were created; trainers provide instruction as to the competencies and their real-world practice and application, and assessors perform evaluations of the competencies in a variety of circumstances. Generally, an assessor will overview and approve several key performance indicators (KPIs) within a competency, such as equipment maintenance and safety.

MSRC transitioned to utilizing the Responder competency models in recruitment and performance evaluation in the fall of 2018. Since that time, feedback from entry- and intermediate-level Responders has been overwhelmingly positive. This feedback, gathered during the annual review process and in regional management team discussions, focuses on the morale-driven benefits of the restructuring of the timeline for career advancement, as well as the performance reward potential built into the assessment structure. At the time of publication, no global best practice exists for a metric of this type; as MSRC continues to implement this program, we are happy to share results and successes with other organizations in the global response network.

Oil Tanker Spill Statistics 2019