Major labour shortage predicted for oilpatch by 2014

CALGARY - Canada's oilpatch may once again be a magnet for workers from across the country and around the world, an economist said Monday after a study predicted a major labour shortfall in the energy sector by 2014.

Human resources consulting firm Mercer surveyed 135 oil, natural gas and utility companies and found the sector will be short some 24,000 workers in four years.

"I've been expecting labour shortages to lurk their heads once again in Alberta's economy as the recovery takes firmer hold," said Todd Hirsch, a senior economist at ATB Financial.

As a result, a program to recruit temporary workers from abroad may need to be ratcheted up, he added.

"It seemed to take us a long time when the labour shortages were upon us last time to get the temporary foreign worker process up to speed. But once it was up to speed, then companies could bring in those foreign workers very quickly," Hirsch said.

"I think that process will stay in place and I don't think they'll have as much of a time lag getting those foreign workers."

In 2009 and the early part of this year, Alberta saw more people leaving the province than coming in. But that's likely to change, Hirsch said.

"I do expect as Alberta's economy gradually picks up steam and as the oilpatch kicks into fuller gear that we will see more inter-provincial migration," he said.

"There's still a lot of under-utilized workers in other parts of the country where the unemployment rates are higher.

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, was dubious the province will return to a labour market as tight as the 2005 to 2008 boom.

"We're not going back there, so we can't be cavalier about keeping jobs in the province," he said.

The AFL worries about how many high-paying jobs can be sustained in Alberta's oilpatch, given how much manufacturing is being done overseas and how much oilsands processing is being done in the United States.

The Mercer report found the workforce is becoming increasingly divided between the baby boom generation, 45 and older, and employees under the age of 30, so companies will need to tailor their programs to suit the needs of each age group.

Mercer also said companies need to do more to build talent within their ranks, rather than looking outside. It was that "buy talent" phenomenon that caused wages to spiral out of control during the last boom., Mon June 21 2010

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