Oilpatch faces uphill battle recruiting skilled and unskilled workers

·4 min read
Recruiters say they are struggling to find qualified workers to fill jobs in Alberta's resurgent oil and gas sector.  (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Recruiters say they are struggling to find qualified workers to fill jobs in Alberta's resurgent oil and gas sector. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press - image credit)

Companies in the oil and gas sector say they're struggling to find both skilled and unskilled workers now that activity has rebounded with oil and gas prices soaring.

"It's just unbelievable how much, how fast, it's turned around," said Calgary recruiter Shannon Warren.

He said the oil and gas industry is now rebounding after limping through nearly seven years of collapsing oil prices, an economic downturn, a recession and a pandemic that saw demand dry up — resulting in mass layoffs and employees switching sectors in order to survive.

In fact, Warren and other recruiters, managers, human resource departments and industry leaders are scrambling to attract enough workers — from highly skilled trades people and professionals to unskilled green, eager-to-learn labourers — in order to ride out the current tidal wave of activity sparked by skyrocketing oil prices.

"There's such a huge demand right now, there's so much work out there, we're seeing it more and more as the days and weeks are progressing (and) it's only getting worse," said Warren, CEO of Matrix Labour Leasing Ltd., a Calgary-based recruiter.

The problem, industry insiders believe, is threefold.

People have moved on to more stable and secure work, albeit often lower paid. People are worried about the industry's volatile nature. And people are being bombarded with messaging that says the oil and gas industry is harmful, and fading in relevance, as the world transitions to greener and cleaner sources of energy.

In fact, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently urged a group of graduating university students not to work for companies who fund the fossil fuel sector, calling that industry "climate wreckers."

"That is a very disheartening statement to be made on a world stage when that's truly not the case," said Gurpreet Lail, president of the Petroleum Services Association of Canada (PSAC).

"Everybody's moving forward, we're all looking at diversification, and we need employees to actually be part of that movement."

And the sector needs them now, Lail said.

Casting the net wide

Lail said she just did a quick survey of PSAC's members and discovered more than 2,000 open jobs for skilled and unskilled labourers in the energy service sector.

She said she knows companies are going to different lengths to recruit people including targeting non-traditional labour pools.

"So whether it's the South Asian community, the Filipino community, Latin community, we're using different languages to attract people back into this industry and educating them and pushing out the message that there are jobs to be had. There is a future in this industry," said Lail.

The provincial government is also looking at making temporary foreign workers more accessible, according to the Canadian Association of Energy Contractors (CAOEC).

"That might be another alternative that the industry might have to pursue to look at if it wants to kind of maintain kind of current status of of activity," said Mark Scholz, president of CAOEC.

But he said that may be difficult given the cyclical nature of the industry. In the meantime, Scholz said the focus for his members has been in Canada.

Better wages, bonuses, incentives

The CAOEC sets a recommended benchmark minimum wage for land drillers and service rig contractors. Recently, it boosted those wages 10 to 20 per cent.

"To attract workers and to reflect the new activity in the market … the last seven or eight years, the wages have mostly been flat," said Scholz.

It worked for at least one new employee from Calgary. Lennox Leader, a first-year plumber, is getting set to start a new job as a roughneck on a service rig — going from making $18/hr to $36/hr.

"Eventually, I'll go back to it but right now I have student loans that I would like to pay off and stuff, and it's just kind of  better money, right?" said Leader, 24.

Signing bonuses of $1,000 to $2,500 are also being offered in some cases, although not everyone believes they will resolve the labour shortage in the long term.

Scholz says aside from monetary compensation and benefits, many workers are seeking better schedules, with more flexibility to allow a balanced lifestyle.

"I think that is probably going to be a lot more of the strategy that's going to be used as opposed to just throwing money at the problem," said Scholz.

Warren, the Calgary-based recruiter, said that's also what he's hearing from clients, who mostly work in the trades.

"A lot of times they're working in a camp, so they're giving up a lot of their life to go work for a client and so all they're really looking for is to be treated fairly and to be paid fairly."