Alberta falling short 100,000 workers; Labour crunch jeopardizes mega projects

Alberta faces a potentially crippling shortage of workers that could stall development of multi-billion-dollar oilsands projects and the economy at large, government and industry officials said Tuesday.

Government forecasts say Alberta needs 400,000 new workers by 2015. But that analysis also shows 100,000 of those jobs won't be filled unless new strategies are engaged to recruit and train people from every possible demographic.

Brian Maynard, a vice-president with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, says the energy industry alone faces a shortfall of 40,000 workers over the next eight years.

Failure to find the right number of workers could jeopardize billions in investment planned for the booming energy sector. Energy contributes about a third, more than $59 billion annually, to Alberta's gross domestic product.

Maynard said Alberta can't afford to ignore the brewing demographic storm. "There's just too much at stake," he said. "This is one of the biggest issues our industry faces."

Maynard was on hand for the unveiling of the Alberta government's workforce strategy for the oil and gas industry, a series of training and education initiatives designed to increase the labour pool by attracting more women, young people and aboriginals to the workforce.

Women in particular make up about three per cent of an oil and gas workforce that is typically Caucasian, older than 45 -- and male.

"The 100,000 (workers) come in pieces," said Energy Minister Mel Knight.

The energy industry has 150,00 direct employees and almost double that when indirect employment is counted.

By 2015 the oilpatch faces critical shortages of skilled trades ranging from process engineers to quality control supervisors. The province defines a critical shortage as any sector with less than three per cent unemployment.

The government's 10-year strategy was hashed out with the help of 37 energy associations, labour organizations and employers and aims to broaden the workforce with a suite of programs including training, education and attracting more people to move to Alberta from within Canada as well as overseas.

"The important thing to remember is that this is an industry led approach," said Lloyd Dick, speaking on behalf of the Alberta Chamber of Resources and Construction Owners Association of Alberta.

In addition, the program aims to recruit more young people. Youth unemployment is roughly double the province's official 3.8 per cent rate and energy is held with a certain amount of disdain among young people who see it as old-fashioned

"To attract the labour force of tomorrow we have to promote the petroleum industry as an employer of choice," said Cheryl Knight, executive director of the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada.

But Gil McGowan, who heads the Alberta Federation of Labour, said his group is "suspicious" of government efforts to bring more workers to Alberta at a time when dissatisfaction with working conditions is running high.

Last week, five construction unions held strike votes in Edmonton, Calgary and Fort McMurray for the first time in more than 30 years, voicing displeasure with working conditions on major oilsands projects.

If the votes are positive, construction work in northeast Alberta could come to a halt before the end of the month.

McGowan accused the government of trying to circumvent Alberta's labour movement by bringing in temporary foreign workers.

He said employers are partly to blame for failing to attract and train new workers during the downturn. Instead many potential new recruits were turned away and took up careers in more "stable" sectors of the economy.

"What we're saying is that there has to be a better way to develop the workforce of the future so we're better ready for when the boom comes," he said. "Throwing money at the problem is not enough."

According to Iris Evans, Alberta's minister of Employment, Immigration and Industry, her department received about 8,000 applications for foreign workers, a four-fold increase from 2,000 applications at this time last year.

But CAPP's Maynard countered that hiring foreigners is an expensive last resort. Most companies would prefer to hire Canadians first, he added.

Skilled oil workers are as scarce as steel and equipment around the globe. The oil industry would still be hard-pressed to attract all the workers it needs even if immigration levels were dramatically increased, he noted.

"We need them in every area . . . and it's going to fall to immigration to fill the gap," he said. "There's nobody that's going to be left aside. Usually governments have had to deal with unemployment, now they're having to deal with full employment and that's a complete reversal from what they're used to."

Calgary Herald, Page A1, Wed July 11 2007
Byline: Shaun Polczer

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