Oilsands faces labour challenge

CALGARY — The oilsands sector may need to more than double its workforce over the next decade, as expansion projects create new positions and existing workers retire, the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada said Friday.

CALGARY — The oilsands sector may need to more than double its workforce over the next decade, as expansion projects create new positions and existing workers retire, the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada said Friday.

In a new report, the council predicted the oilsands workforce will grow by a “staggering” 73 per cent by 2021, from the 20,000 it employed at the end of 2011.

Between the 14,600 new jobs that will be need to be filled and existing positions opened up by retiring employees, there will be some 21,000 vacancies to fill by 2021, said Cheryl Knight, executive director of the council.

“It does pose significant challenges because the oilsands is very much a high-tech area where very specific skills are used,” she said.

Leading the job growth are oilsands projects that use high-pressure steam to draw thick, sticky bitumen from deep underground, though companies that operate more traditional open-pit mines will need more workers, too.

“These are new technologies dealing with steam, where very often the skillsets are not readily available in other sectors,” said Knight.

“So it does mean that oil and gas companies are going to have to hire people with specific skills, and that means that we’re going to have to look all across the world to find those people.”

And that skilled labour doesn’t come cheap, so companies should be wary of rising labour costs, which didn’t decrease as much as many may have expected during the recession.

“Those people with those hard-to-find and very necessary skills are coming at a high price, and they’re coming from very much the competition. So it’s kind of raising the cost for the whole industry.”

Knight said there are actions provincial and federal governments can take to help ease the labour shortage, some of which were addressed in the federal budget released Thursday.

For instance measures to reduce the immigration backlog are positive, as is increased funding for training programs, said Knight, though she said she’d like to see more details.

And efforts to streamline the regulatory process so that energy projects are reviewed within a set amount of time makes companies better able to plan their labour needs, she said.

Junior federal finance minister Ted Menzies recapped some of those budget measures when he spoke to a Calgary business audience on Friday.

“Rapid growth presents challenges that many here are keenly aware of,” said the Alberta MP.

Some of the gap will be filled through immigration, and some through retraining, he said.

“The aboriginal population — there’s a tremendous source of willing participants there,” he added. “So we’re encouraging them, helping them, providing skills training for young aboriginals so they can be part of this labour force.”

Todd Hirsch, senior economist at ATB Financial, said even right now the labour market from Edmonton north to the oilsands epicentre of Fort McMurray, Alta., is tight — and it’s only going to get tighter.

“Investment in oilsands activity is still going full steam ahead and as a result they’re really into backlogs of people who can work on these projects,” he said, adding skilled tradespeople like welders, carpenters and electrician are in highest demand.

“The shortages are going to be very acute.”

Hirsch said he, too was encouraged by some of the measures he saw in the federal budget. For instance, tweaks to Employment Insurance will make it easier for workers to transfer from one province to another.

“And I think that’s a little bit overdue. The current EI system actually encourages people to stay put and discourages labour mobility, when what we need to see right now is more labour mobility, people moving between regions to find job opportunities,” said Hirsch.

“Because Western Canada still needs a lot of labour, and there is a surplus in certain parts of central and eastern Canada.”

For instance, workers in Ontario’s ailing manufacturing sector may want to look westward for jobs.

“And Alberta, Western Canada, Saskatchewan — we could welcome those workers.”

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