Strategy Aims To Stem Alberta’s Worker Shortfall

A worker shortfall in the energy industry could stall Alberta's motoring economy, although government and industry representatives outlined plans Tuesday to grapple with the problem.

Officials unveiled a 10-year workforce strategy for Alberta's energy sector, although there's no silver bullet solution to solving the problem, noted Cheryl Knight, executive director and chief executive officer of the Petroleum Human Resources Council.

"Change takes time and we're working on it," Knight said in an interview.

The Alberta government facilitated collaboration among 37 energy associations, organizations and employers to develop the strategy.

There are a number of areas where new workers could be sourced, Knight said. "Youth, immigration, temporary foreign workers, aboriginals, women. There really isn't one source."

The key, she said, is having industry promote the range of occupations.

"To attract the labour force of tomorrow we have to promote the oil and gas industry as an employer of choice."

At the end of July, the council is launching 'draw the world into your workplace' which is a 40-page workplace booklet to help companies reach out to the five under represented groups including youth, women, aboriginal peoples, immigrants and visible minorities.

Shying away from the human resource challenge is not an option as there is too much at stake, noted Brian Maynard, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

"It is increasingly difficult to find people with the right skills in sufficient numbers," he noted. "Forecasts suggest that by 2015, Alberta will be facing a worker shortfall of approximately 100,000 people."

Annual capital spending in the oil and gas industry tripled from $11.5 billion in 1998 to $36.6 billion in 2006. As of May 2007 there were $121.3 billion energy-related construction projects planned, underway or recently completed in the province.

As of April 2007, the oilsands (including upgraders) accounted for over $105 billion or 61% of all major construction projects planned, underway or recently completed in the province.

The total number of Albertans employed in the energy sector, as defined for the purposes of the strategy, was estimated at 146,000 in 2006. Approximately 132,000 individuals worked in oil and gas extraction and support activities. A further 10,000 were estimated to be employed in Alberta's electricity industry and 2,000 each in the coal and pipeline industries.

Brian Maynard

In 2006, the unemployment rate for mining, oil and gas extraction was three per cent, below the provincial average of 3.4%.

However, parts of the energy sector are experiencing demographic challenges. Economic downturns in the 1980s and early 1990s led to downsizing and the current demographic gaps in the workforce are due to the loss of experienced mid-career employees and difficulty in attracting new entrants, the strategy document notes.

As well, a number of occupations in the oil and gas and electricity industries are experiencing the challenges of an aging workforce. Forty per cent of the labour force in oil and gas supervisory, engineering, technology and operations-related positions are 45 years and older.

The energy sector also employs proportionally more men than women. Men represent almost 75% of the total workforce in mining, oil and gas extraction while they only account for 55% of all employed Albertans. However, the numbers of women in mining, oil and gas extraction are steadily increasing, up 9,600 between 2005 and 2006.

Some of the strategies are hoped to stem the problem before it becomes dire.

Key actions include developing information on career opportunities and occupations in the upstream petroleum industry and disseminate it to traditional and non-traditional pools of labour while continuing to promote careers in the trades (develop brochures, attend career fairs).

Others called for the exploration of alternative approaches to altering public perception of the oil and gas industry, partnering with government and individual communities to provide improved support programs and networks for integrating new immigrants, partnering with the Canadian Council of Directors of Apprenticeship to develop a strategy to improve the Foreign Credential Recognition (FCR) process, including the development of an FCR assessment tool for foreign trained construction trade workers and work to improve labour mobility within Canada, particularly for occupations in the trades (recognition of credentials, free movement of apprentices).

The Alberta Federation of Labour, however, was "disappointed" by the workforce strategy.

"Instead of substance all we have is vague intentions and promises," Gil McGowan, president, said in a statement. "We also note with disappointment that the union most involved in the energy sector, the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP) was not consulted.

"We had hoped to see proposals for changing the way we engage in workforce training in both our post-secondary and apprenticeship training systems. We also expected some specific goals and targets for dealing with the social and economic dislocation that drives workers away from isolated worksites and boomtowns like Fort McMurray."

Meanwhile, Petro-Canada's Andrew Stephens noted that with the company's stake in the oilsands, rolling out a strategy is key to address the labour needs going forward.

"The projected workforce for Petro-Canada on our Fort Hills project alone is expected to peak in the third quarter of 2009 at 8,000 construction workers and when operating will need 1,600 operations personnel and then on top of that we'll need the people to maintain the facility," he said.

Employment Minister Iris Evans said that if the strategies aren't followed, it could lead to a slowdown of economic growth.

"We've got a full and complete way to look at things," she said. "Expose young people to trades. Talk to kids in school."

Energy Minister Mel Knight added the solution will not come together at once.

"You put together a roadmap to bring those pieces together so that at the end of the day we can clearly see," he said.

Daily Oil Bulletin, Page 1, Wed July 11 2007
Byline: By Richard Macedo

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