Energy sector facing resource brownouts: Survey

Campus recruitment, knowledge-sharing can help
By Amanda Silliker
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 07/19/2011

The energy industry is already experiencing resource gaps and expecting further labour shortages, according to a survey by Maxwell Drummond International.

“We’re not surprised to hear people say they expect a shortage,” said Brian Coffman, general manager of Maxwell’s Canadian operations in Calgary. “It really reflects the demographics in this industry and what we’ve expected now for some time.”

Resource gaps are expected to be the most acute in reservoir and petroleum engineering, according to 49.5 per cent of the respondents to the 2011 Annual Energy Survey. Another 49.5 per cent said gaps are expected in drilling and completions followed by field operations (41.4 per cent), subsea and marine (39.6 per cent) and geosciences (39.6 per cent), according to the 100 energy leaders worldwide who responded to the survey.

“There was a period in the ‘90s where people backed off and there was a shift in the industry,” said Debbie Wershler, vice-president of workforce management at Bowen Workforce Solutions in Calgary. “There was very little hiring activity in, say, petroleum engineering, so when you’re not hiring for a few years, you get some very specific gaps in those skill sets.”

Poor public perception is the main reason people are discouraged from joining the industry, according to 63.8 per cent of survey respondents. The Dirty Oil Sands project — an international network of individuals and groups that oppose the expansion of the Canadian tar sands and advocate for its cleanup — had significant impact, said Wershler.

“(The campaign) impacts the ability to attract youth and people from other industries,” she said. “They don’t necessarily have factual information, they have emotional information that has been throughout that whole campaign.”

To combat the labour shortage, employers should reach out to university and college students, said Coffman.

Every year, EnCana hires 60 second-year engineering students for the summer, evaluates them and invites the top 40 to return the summer after their third year. As the students are entering their fourth year, the natural gas producer makes 25 job offers to the best students in the group, said David Urquhart, team lead for HR advisory and staffing and development.

When they come on board, they undergo a three- to four-year program where they are given access to many different business units, leaders, disciplines and experiences.

“It’s a very comprehensive development program and, at the end, we put them on a longer-term assignment based on what they want to do,” he said. “Our retention rate is extremely high with new grads.”

Collaboration and knowledge-sharing between oil and gas companies with other energy industry sectors — such as renewables, coal and nuclear — would be very or extremely beneficial in dealing with the labour shortage, according to 57.6 per cent of survey respondents.

“There’s an appetite largely driven by the fact we need this knowledge and we need this capability. If we’re not going to satisfy it within the (sector), where else can we look to meet our needs?” said Coffman.

The best ways to facilitate knowledge-sharing and collaboration between the different energy sectors are cross-sector task forces (58.6 per cent) and employee exchanges (46.8 per cent), according to the survey.

At EnCana, this kind of collaboration would not necessarily be welcomed with its competitors, but it often engages in development exchanges with various government agencies, said Urquhart.

Employers should look to hire personnel with specific skill sets because this is the best way to deal with the changes in the industry, according to 57.6 per cent of survey respondents.

“When you get into reservoir engineering, petroleum engineering, it’s such a specific skill set and it’s not like you can take any engineer and turn them into that quickly,” said Wershler. “We need more skills from a growth perspective and from the replacement (of retiring workers) side of things.”

Employers may need to recruit and train from other sectors within the industry, although there is a lack of ability and willingness to do so, according to 22.9 per cent of survey respondents.

“Some of these newer areas, there’s only so many people that have the skills you really seek,” said Coffman.

Another useful resource is foreign workers, which employers in the Calgary oil sands have been recruiting all across the globe, especially South Africa, he said.

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