Alberta’s oil and fuel employees wrestle with layoffs and an uncharted future 

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Rising up in Scotland, Jim Stirling selected a life in petroleum engineering slightly than down in a mine, escaping the tumultuous decline of the British coal trade within the Eighties. 

It led him to Canada, the place he constructed a profession tackling advanced initiatives for main oil corporations, from offshore exploration to carbon seize and storage. He took satisfaction in being among the many relative few in a position to do such work.

Nowadays, nevertheless, Stirling is among the many many oil and fuel employees who’ve misplaced their jobs within the final seven years. He now runs his personal consultancy whereas on the lookout for work, however the job market has been tough. 

“I was in my early mid-50s when I got laid off, and that’s the wrong age to be looking for new employment,” stated Stirling, who was a part of a wave of job cuts within the sector in 2015.

“And more senior positions had been more or less wiped out just because there was no real large-scale development ongoing.”

Amid world efforts to transition away from fossil fuels, Alberta isn’t solely being challenged to assist put oil and fuel employees again to work however to carve out a future in a low-emissions world that helps employment and communities for many years to return. 

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Calgary petroleum engineer and marketing consultant Jim Stirling says the job market within the oilpatch has been ‘very troublesome.’ (Jim Stirling)

Trade and employees in transition

On the finish of 2013, earlier than oil costs started an extended slide the next 12 months, greater than 171,000 individuals in Alberta have been immediately employed by the oil and fuel trade, in accordance with labour power statistics compiled by PetroLMI.  This previous February, it was fewer than 135,000. 

Based on PetroLMI, there have been greater than 15,500 employees in the oil and fuel sector actively on the lookout for employment final month. 

“We talk about them as statistics, but they’re people; they’re family members,” stated labour knowledgeable Janet Lane on the Canada West Basis, a public coverage assume tank in Calgary.

On the finish of 2013, earlier than oil costs started an extended slide the next 12 months, greater than 171,000 individuals in Alberta have been immediately employed by the oil and fuel trade, in accordance with PetroLMI. This previous February, the quantity was fewer than 135,000. (CBC)

Bettering power costs have raised hopes for the sort of spending that may put individuals to work, particularly if gasoline demand soars because the pandemic abates. 

However the current cancellation of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline price a 1,000 pipeline employees, their jobs and there is ongoing consolidation inside the sector. Cenovus’s takeover of Husky Vitality, for instance, is predicted to provide as many as 2,100 layoffs.

Advances in know-how imply extra will also be performed with fewer individuals

Whereas the oilpatch stays an financial power in Alberta, it is an trade going through nice change.

Janet Lane is director of the Human Capital Centre on the Canada West Basis, a public coverage assume tank primarily based in Calgary. (Canada West Basis)

Lane stated it is nonetheless taking a while for individuals to grasp lots of these jobs aren’t coming again and, after they do, they is probably not the identical jobs or may include decrease wage.

Whereas there’s nonetheless going to be work within the oilpatch for a very long time, she stated, those that have been unemployed for a number of years now are most likely not returning. 

So, what are their choices? 

Tech ambitions

Jobs within the know-how sector are sometimes touted as one doable reply, and there are alternatives for many who could make the transition, together with with corporations working in fields equivalent to monetary providers, agriculture and power. 

It’s going to take not simply alternative however coaching, and it seems there is a massive urge for food for each.

When Calgary Financial Improvement launched a $1.5-million pilot program final 12 months to coach former oil and fuel employees for the tech sector, it obtained 1,400 purposes for 100 spots.

Many see authorities funding in upgrading expertise and retraining as key. 

When Calgary Financial Improvement launched a $1.5-million pilot program final 12 months to coach former oil and fuel employees for the tech sector, it obtained 1,400 purposes for 100 spots. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/The Related Press)

However governments can even need to hold diversifying the financial system to assist create new alternatives, stated Mark Kopec, a former oilpatch engineer.

Kopec selected to depart the sector 4 years in the past in his 30s to pursue a profession as a software program developer, deciding to uproot from Calgary quickly to immerse himself in coaching in Silicon Valley. It additionally meant going from being a senior engineer to beginning contemporary within the junior ranks.

He is glad he made the transfer, touchdown a superb job shortly after returning to Calgary. Nonetheless, he agrees that such modifications aren’t going to be simple for everybody.

“A lot of people feel most comfortable in what they’ve done well at; it’s tough to make that change,” Kopec stated. “And especially in your mid-30s, going into a tech career, which felt like a young person’s game. It’s scary.”

Early days for rising sectors

When reservoir engineer Januar Wirawan was laid off by a significant oil firm in October 2019, his first intuition was to search out one other job inside the sector the place he’d constructed his profession.

It was the primary time in his working life that he did not “bounce back better.” 

“I was looking for another position like the one that I had,” he stated. “That’s where I got stuck. I was looking for a reservoir engineering position in oil and gas. And I couldn’t find anything.”

Former oilpatch engineer Januar Wirawan now works within the hydrogen sector. (Januar Wirawan)

He needed to be taught to market the smooth expertise he’d developed, equivalent to management and mentoring, and turned to an outplacement agency, Greater Touchdown, for assist.

Wirawan in the end discovered success — employed in February by a Calgary firm that is engaged on producing hydrogen from oil fields whereas conserving the emissions beneath floor. 

“I made the first step,” stated Wirawan, who’ll be 55 this 12 months. “I got this job, and now, the next phase is trying to contribute to this industry.” 

Wirawan is an instance of somebody who discovered work in one of many sectors targeted on transitioning away from fossil fuels to different power sources and lowering greenhouse fuel emissions.

Important wind and photo voltaic initiatives and geothermal power improvement which might be underway may present job alternatives for conventional oil and fuel employees. 

However labour specialists say when politicians or others counsel fossil gasoline employees ought to merely transfer into “green” power jobs, they misunderstand the complexities.

“We have huge potential with our oil and gas workforce to support the overall energy transition, but we’re in early days, and that’s going to have to mature,” stated Pat Hufnagel-Smith, a labour market marketing consultant in Calgary.  

Potential areas for progress embrace lithium, hydrogen improvement and helium.

A $50-million geothermal energy plant below development close to Estevan, Sask., in 2018. Alberta can also be trying to develop its geothermal sector. (Submitted by Exergy)

Whereas there are a whole lot of alternatives, she stated, a few of these sectors are nonetheless rising, and it’ll take time to show out which of them are going to be economically possible.

“The economy is transitioning. The energy ecosystem is transitioning,” Hufnagel-Smith stated. ” At the same time, we’re trying to deal with a workforce that’s transitioning [that] doesn’t necessarily have the time or want to wait until those sectors get some traction.”

Jobs are additionally anticipated to be created within the environmental sector, pushed by funding in clear know-how, emissions discount and renewable power.

Eco Canada, a nationwide human useful resource group primarily based in Calgary, forecast in September that the web variety of openings in that sector — together with new jobs and alternative demand — may prime 44,000 in Alberta by 2029.

Nationally, it expects there will likely be 233,500 web job openings within the environmental sector over that interval. 

The reclaiming of previous oil and fuel wells, during which Ottawa invested $1.7 billion final 12 months, additionally provides job alternatives. 

Hopes for the oilpatch

Some Albertans will proceed to look to the oil and fuel sector to drive each the financial system and employment, a lot because it has performed for many years. They will say the oilpatch has needed to reinvent itself earlier than.

Along with expectations for a post-COVID surge in gasoline demand, there’s optimism about export pipelines to the West Coast for each oil and liquefied pure fuel

Inter Pipeline Ltd.’s Heartland Petrochemical Advanced simply east of Edmonton. The roughly $4-billion mission is designed to make use of propane to make polypropylene, a high-value plastic. The Alberta authorities has dedicated to rising the petrochemical sector, which may very well be a supply of jobs for these within the oil sector who are actually out of labor. (Inter Pipeline Ltd.)

Various oil and fuel corporations have pledged to succeed in net-zero emission by 2050 — guarantees that’ll require the main target, cash and folks with the experience to realize it. 

To that finish, some want to investments in carbon seize and storage to be the sport changer for the sector that Premier Jason Kenney believes it may be, although not everybody sees it that means.

Others see massive potential in blue hydrogen from pure fuel in addition to the petrochemical sector, which the federal government desires to develop dramatically by 2030.

Planning for an power transition

Speak of the power transition, nevertheless, seems solely to be rising extra pressing, notably as U.S. President Joe Biden joins efforts to fight local weather change. 

As a part of a global panel dialogue on the power transition final Tuesday, Canada’s pure assets minister stated the worldwide effort to decrease emissions is underway. However Seamus O’Regan stated the world will not turn into oil-free in a single day and it is incumbent upon governments to ensure conventional power employees aren’t left behind.

“Our energy workers here in this country, out in Alberta and Saskatchewan, in two generations figured out how to get oil out of sand,” O’Regan stated. “We need that same ingenuity and determination and work ethic now to lower emissions.”

Federal Pure Sources Minister Seamus O’Regan says the world will not turn into oil-free in a single day and it is incumbent upon governments to ensure conventional power employees aren’t left behind. (Mark Quinn/ CBC)

Economist Jim Stanford, director of the Centre for Future Work, a progressive assume tank primarily based in Vancouver, B.C., stated what the federal government ought to do is make a plan to section out the fossil gasoline sector that prioritizes employees and communities.

“We aren’t doing any favours for fossil fuel workers by pretending this [transition] isn’t happening, and I think all Canadians owe a debt to the fossil fuel workers who have been working diligently in this industry,” stated the previous coverage director for Unifor, Canada’s largest personal sector union.

In a current report for the advocacy group Environmental Defence, he recommended a collection of targeted assist measures as a part of a deliberate phase-out of the sector over 20 years, together with incentives for early retirement, retraining and powerful regional improvement and diversification methods.

“If we identify the climate transition and the energy transition as a national priority, then we should be putting resources in it from all levels of government in Canada, and we can focus it on those communities that need the help the most,” Stanford stated.

Seeking to the longer term

Occupied with his personal future, engineer Stirling can spot the chance for higher days within the areas he is focusing on for employment, equivalent to carbon seize and storage.

“In the same way that we’re developing technologies to handle climate change, we need to be developing skill sets that do the same and skill sets that address future industrial needs.”

Within the meantime, he stated it would not damage to be a Calvinist Scotsman.

“I’ve kind of tended to be able to be careful with my money,” Stirling stated. “I’m just having to be a lot more careful with my money than I thought.”

Alberta has seen progress in renewable power technology, equivalent to this wind farm close to Pincher Creek, Alta., in recent times. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)