There are plenty of jobs available, and the pay is good, but Canada’s oil and gas sector continues to have trouble finding and keeping skilled workers.
The top three workforce issues are attracting and retaining workers in hard-to-recruit locations (67 per cent), labour/skills shortages (53 per cent) and employee turnover/retention (47 per cent), according to a survey by the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada (now part of Enform).
And in a separate survey, more than one-half (54 per cent) of employers cited skills shortages as a significant issue while three-quarters (73 per cent) expect to increase hiring in the next 12 months, according to recruitment firm Hays.
So what’s causing the problems? Apparently not compensation — oil and gas professionals earn an average of $125,680 per year, which outstrips the United States (at $124,000), according to the Hays 2013 Oil and Gas Global Salary Guide. And while the Canadian rate is behind Australia at $167,160, that country’s offerings are not as good when it comes to factors such as the cost of living, bonuses and benefits packages, according to Jim Fearon, regional director at Hays Canada in Calgary.
“That’s really where companies are focusing more at the moment in terms of improving their offerings to potential candidates. It’s a battle on that ground — who can offer the best benefit packages.”
However, industries such as construction and IT are taking a similar approach, so that’s not necessarily a differentiator, he said.
“I don’t think somebody will come out of school, and say, ‘I want to go to university and work in oil and gas because I’ll get a better health scheme than I will from a technology company,’” said Fearon. “It’s more to do with how (employers) compete for the local talent and how they attract people from overseas.”
But there could be challenges if companies start competing with wages when it comes to finding local people, faster.
“All of a sudden, the salary war kicks off again, which had finally settled down, and I don’t think a salary war’s healthy for the industry at all,” he said.
Pay is a significant incentive as oil and gas routinely attracts people away from other industries such as mining or forestry because of the difference in wages, said Cheryl Knight, executive director of the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada in Calgary. But there are other challenges the industry is facing, such as remote locations and negative perceptions.
“Youth may not see the industry as being aligned with their broader social interests or their values, based on some of the negative environmental information about the industry. So that’s a perception issue that we seek to address,” she said.
But with a greater proportion of people reaching retirement age than coming into the industry, that’s a problem.
“We’re losing experienced workers but we’re also losing people, such as managers and supervisors, that tend to be in the older age bracket, that have mentoring capacity. So, for the industry, we’re faced with succession planning challenges but also productivity challenges with losing these older workers,” said Knight.
“Not only do we need to attract youth into the industry but we also need to attract mid-career transitioners — so people that have transferable skills from other sectors or new Canadians.”
Oil and gas may not be a top draw for many younger people planning their careers, and society in general can share some cultural blame — whether it’s schools or parents not informing kids about the opportunities or a general lack of information, said Jim Facette, president and CEO of the Canadian Propane Association in Ottawa.
A successful career is still defined as going to university as opposed to picking up a trade, he said, and the relatively new high-tech world has a certain attractiveness to it.
“Then you look at the other option, trade — there’s the physical part of the nature of the job that doesn’t necessarily equate with the IT world, but not everybody can be in the IT world. Not everybody’s cut out to be sitting around in front of a computer screen all day.”
Even though oil and gas offers good money, relatively quickly, and a global career path, people in more developed Western countries want to progress into technical profession industries such as smart technologies and app development, said Fearon.
“They grow up using those things and that’s what attracts them. It’s what they know and there’s a huge amount of money being spent into it, whereas before that wasn’t there.”
However, in countries such as India or China, there are high volumes of well-educated graduates coming out of universities who are attracted to areas such as oil and gas to get a good start in life, said Fearon. Pursuing a trade qualification is seen as a genuine route to becoming a credible professional.
Along with global competition, Canada’s federal government has responded to concerns about the use of temporary foreign workers by bringing in greater restrictions around the program. But that can be bad news for oil and gas companies.
“A large part of it is to do with how we compete with the likes of Australia who have got really, really well-refined immigration processes for skill shortages, and make the process usable and something that you can plan around,” said Fearon.
“If Canada wants to put themselves on an even keel with the other countries around the world that are also competing for international talent, then certainly making the immigration process more straightforward, more structured and more reliable, I think, is the key.”
The oil and gas industry is cyclical and seasonal, and many employers, especially smaller ones, work from a contract, so planning is a challenge, said Knight.
“The immigration and temporary foreign worker cycles are most amenable to people who have longer planning time horizons, and many sectors of our industry are just not able to work that way. So the new restrictions make time horizons longer and the system’s more cumbersome and, generally speaking, more difficult to use.”
In newer hot spots such as the Bakken region in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, companies have had to become much more creative enticing people, said Knight. That includes:
• using multiple channels to recruit, such as social media
• offering more incentives around referrals
• putting a greater focus on employer branding
• explaining career pathways and opportunities
• offering leadership development programs
• offering compensation and scheduling packages that include paid flights, accommodation, different rotations, bonuses or stipends around winter retention, housing costs stipends and vehicle allowances.
In the name of retention, even truck drivers are being paid to stay at home for six to eight weeks during the spring breakup on the patch, when the roads are too muddy to use, said Facette.
“There’s some very good living standards to be had, very good jobs to be had. You can do quite well on your own,” he said. “Companies have to get creative on incentives — financial or otherwise, time off, this or that, whatever — but there’s always that risk that they get poached. So, in shortages, it’s that challenging.”
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