Eric Garbutt is living proof of the value of open learning.
For the 58 year old Billingham-born engineer has had a successful international career in the oil and transport industries since taking the plunge and returning to learning at the age of 43.
At 15, he left school to join ICI and an apprenticeship, and chanced his luck working abroad but he hadn’t reckoned on the recession sweeping Europe at the time.
Back home Eric’s fortunes improved and he worked his way up to become an instrument engineer, working for a time for BP across the UK and the Gulf.
But the industry was changing and when a friend told him about a great opportunity with Shell, he discovered the way forward was barred because he hadn’t got a Higher National Certificate (HNC).
"Experience alone was no longer enough. People needed to be reassured that you could do the job and wanted to see your qualifications”, said Eric.
"I couldn’t stop working to go to college. I had a young family to support and was working in the North Sea on the Claymore platform – two weeks on and two weeks off.
"Somehow I found out about the COLU courses, which were run from Middlesbrough’s Longlands College. They allowed you to study while you were working anywhere in the world.”
He recalls having to do a bridging course to improve his maths before they would let him start the HNC in Instrumentation and Control Engineering programme.
"I was doing 12-hour shifts out at sea, and when work finished instead of joining the others to watch a film in the rest room, I went back to the office and got my books out. Luckily, a friend was doing a COLU course at the same, and, as he was virtually on the same rotation as me we supported each other.
"It was hard going, especially when I returned home after each two-week stint. Instead of going out and relaxing with the family I had to continue studying. Off-shore on the platform there was little else to do and it wasn’t so bad once you got into the swing of things.”
After three years, Eric graduated and managed to get on to the MSc in Project Management at Aberdeen University - acceptance was dependant on gaining the HNC.
"To be honest, I thought the HNC was tougher. It was certainly tougher technically.”
With the two qualifications under his belt in time for his 50th birthday, his career took off again and he switched for a while to the railways, helping to manage the construction of the showpiece Canary Wharf station on the London Underground Jubilee Line and the extension of the Sunderland extension to the Tyne and Wear Metro before returning to the oil industry for his biggest challenge yet.
He is now a Project Director and AMEC’s representative on the Zadco project UZ 750 – the world’s 4th biggest oil and gas project which involves building four artificial islands to service oil extraction in the Gulf.
"The size and scale of what we are doing is really incredible: build four artificial islands out of sand and rock in the water 6 to 8.0 metres. Then drill down 8,000 ft to reach the oil field only to find that the oil field is another 8,000 ft deep and that’s the same depth as Loch Ness.”
Looking back on the way his career has turned out, Eric says he could have stayed a tradesman at ICI, but instead seized opportunities as they came along and ended up having an amazing career working all over the world for the oil industry.
"In the road map of life you will meet many crossroads; most of us will stay on the straight and narrow because it’s easier. By gaining my HNC in Instrumentation at 47 I took a turn in the road that led me to greener pastures.
"It made such a difference to my life and I am thrilled and delighted to support Teesside University Open Learning (Engineering) and my home town University. I am flying halfway round the world for the privilege of speaking at the event about how much it meant to me and the difference it made to my life. I have been honoured to meet the Queen in my working life and speaking on behalf of Teesside University’s open learning unit is up there with that experience.”