The beginnings of a recovery in Alberta’s oil and gas industry are combining with other powerful forces to create shortages in a range of job skills.
From engineers to derrick hands, the industry is looking for talent for work in Canada and overseas.
And demand is likely to grow substantially in the months and years ahead, says the latest study by the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada.
“Over 30 per cent of the industry’s core workforce -including engineers, geoscience professionals, trades and (equipment) operators -are expected to retire within the next decade,” says the 2010 third-and fourthquarter labour market study by the PHRC.
Cheryl Knight, executive director of the PHRC says the industry will need 105,000 new recruits in this decade; some 30,000 to fill newly created positions, and 75,000 to cover retirements and other attrition.
As retirements loom, experts say, immediate job growth is being driven by:
- Firming oil prices ($85 to $95/bbl), responding to steady demand from emerging economies, such as China and India;
- Horizontal drilling and other technologies that are opening up major new reserves within the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin;
- Alberta’s recently revised royalty formula and increased pace of land leasing; and,
- Reactivation of several major oilsands projects.
The PHRC survey shows immediate skills requirements across the oil patch include:
- Experienced engineers in the fields of exploitation, completions, production and mining;
- Plant operators, steam engineers and power engineers;
- Maintenance trades;
- Production accountants;
- Field operators;
- Rig crews; and,
- Environmental and regulatory specialists.
Intensified work in unconventional gas and oil and in situ oil recovery are also creating demands for:
- Software developers;
- Surface and subsurface engineers;
- Steam engineers;
- Geologists and engineers with shale reservoir and well stimulation experience;
- Measurement-while-drilling specialists;
- Formation fracturing specialists;
- Completions specialists;
- Class 1 drivers;
- Water and environmental management technicians; and,
- Logistics specialists. “Our industry’s challenge, coming out of a downturn is making people aware that we’re hiring,” says Knight.
The industry needs people across three broad sectors. Exploration and production companies need engineers, geoscientists and business professionals; drilling and service companies need specialists willing to travel to remote drilling locations; and construction contractors need trades people to build major projects, particularly in the oil sands.
Knight concedes the volatility of oil and gas prices poses a constant staffing challenge to the industry, especially to the drilling and services sector.
“It’s a fact that we’re in a commodity-based industry, and that drives jobs.”
But she says that during the latest downturn -when oil prices plunged from highs above $130 per barrel in June 2008 to $36 by December of that year -many companies made greater efforts to keep their talent. Drilling and service companies, in particular, sent some of their key people to subsidiaries in the United States in order to keep them on the payroll.
“It keeps people working, but you can’t necessarily get them back when you need them,” she says. So now the hunt is on for people to fill positions on rigs in Canada.
Nancy Malone, of the Canadian Association of Oilwell Drilling Contractors, says last year was a fairly solid recovery year for the sector, and this year is on a similar pace.
After the downturn, Malone says” re-attracting those (experienced) people is proving to be difficult. Currently, we are very, very short-staffed.”
She says some of those experienced people have gone to international drilling companies, while others have been hired by Calgary companies with international operations.
Knight says advancing technologies and the constant push for improved safety performance mean there’s a rising demand for drilling and service sector people with Canadian experience.
But she says there’s also a greater willingness in all three sectors to recruit people with industry experience from around the world.
She adds there’s a growing conviction that, while lack of English can be a safety hazard, an accent should not be a bar to employment.
So great was the need for thousands of tradespeople to work on oilsands projects between 2000 and 2007 that contractors imported construction workers from wherever they could be found. They brought in some 15,000 people under the federal Temporary Foreign Workers Program, and operated fly-in, fly-out programs for tradespeople from the Maritimes.
This time, Knight says, things may be different.
“Alberta is at risk with our heavy reliance on Maritime workers” because of the impending construction starts on the $6.2-billion Lower Churchill (Muskrat Falls) Power Project and the $5-billion Hebron offshore oil platform, both in Newfoundland. Nearly simultaneous starts on those projects could leave very few Maritime tradespeople looking to commute to Alberta, she says.
But the industry, and particularly the oilsands players, are working on various ways to manage their people requirements, she says. For some years, oilsands operators have tried to stagger construction starts to enable the flow of construction trades from one project to the next.
And Knight says operators in the oilsands have been very creative in finding ways to bring more women and Aboriginals into their permanent workforces.
In addition, she says, the Alberta government is working with the federal government on ways to enable temporary foreign workers to obtain landed immigrant status, rather than having to return home at the end of a contract.
“If you’re looking at chronic labour shortages in the future, and we are, why wouldn’t you do this?” asks Knight.
Meanwhile, Canadian companies aren’t the only ones looking for Canadian oil workers, Knight says. Several foreign companies have advertised in Calgary newspapers for various skills in recent weeks, including Qatargas and mighty Saudi Aramco, the work’s largest oil producer.
“The skill and training of Canadian workers is highly regarded,” she says, and several foreign companies recruit on a more or less constant basis in Calgary. Aramco held a job fair in Calgary for three days in early February to interview people who had applied for a wide variety of jobs.
Knight says while foreign companies are a constant presence in the Canadian job market, they don’t appear to be hiring large numbers of people. She says PHRC has no numbers on Canadians working abroad, but adds that many Canadian companies also send workers to their operations in various parts of the world, from South America to Africa and the North Sea.
Calgary-based oil companies with big foreign operations include Nexen Inc., Talisman Energy and Vermilion Energy.
Many of the Canadian subsidiaries of multinational oil companies also send expats abroad.
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