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As Alberta’s oil and gas industry rebounds, there’s a new problem: not enough workers

The price of oil has been rising steadily the last several months, and while that should spell good news for the energy-producing province of Alberta, it has instead shone a spotlight on a problem — there aren’t enough workers.

The province fell into a recession in 2014, when the price of oil plummeted, putting Alberta in a tough financial position and forcing many oil and gas workers out of a job.

But prices have spiked after sanctions against Russia have decreased its exports. Plus, after a slump at the beginning of the pandemic, oil consumption is now nearly back to pre-pandemic levels. 

And now that things are again on the upswing, companies ranging from family-run businesses to larger businesses servicing the oil and gas sector are struggling to recruit enough labour to meet growing demand.

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Pitbull Energy Services, an oil and gas services company based in Edmonton, is looking to bring on approximately 100 truck drivers, but is having trouble finding qualified people. President and CEO Sami Hayek said the company is running at 60 per cent capacity until those positions are filled, and he would have liked to fill those roles “yesterday.”

“We’re still short. We’re still recruiting. We’re still training. It’s an ongoing issue we’re dealing with,” he said.

“It’s never been this bad.”

While Hayek said there are people applying for jobs, there is a shortage of qualified applicants available as Alberta enters, what is believed to be, a boom.

“It’s definitely frustrating. It’s frustrating but we’re working our way through it,” he said.

Family-run businesses also feeling pinch

Paul Chissell, owner of Wynn Machine and Manufacturing in Edmonton, said that when the price of oil started to climb, the phone at his family-run manufacturing business, which services the oil and gas sector, started ringing more.

Chissell said he historically had 15 people on staff; there are currently 12 right now and he would like to hire as many as three additional workers.

“It’s been a struggle for labour, especially skilled labour,” he said.

“If we had more people here then of course, your workload gets spread around and you can produce some more.”

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Paul Chissell, right, works inside Wynn Machine and Manufacturing, a family-run oil and gas services company in Edmonton. (Julia Wong/CBC)

Workers ‘moved on’

Mark Scholz, president and CEO of the Canadian Association of Energy Contractors, said that much of the oil and gas workforce moved on during the recession.

“The pool that we relied on have moved to other occupations — trades, construction — and have found other employment elsewhere, whether in Western Canada, or have moved back home to jurisdictions that we had traditionally recruited from, like Central Canada and Eastern Canada,” he said.

The labour shortage started to become obvious in the middle of 2021, Scholz said, adding the workforce is looking for signals of stability, after years of low activity, before people jump back into the sector.

He said the sector is seeing some of the best drilling activity in a very long time, adding the association is forecasting the sector could put as many as 30 rigs out into the market — if there were enough workers.

Approximately 220 direct and indirect employees are needed for every active drilling rig, he said, meaning there is the potential for roughly 6,000 additional jobs.

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A vacuum truck is used at SATO, a training facility run by Pitbull Energy Services in Millet, Alta. (Julia Wong/CBC)

“It’s not insignificant,” Scholz said.

The association said that if staffing issues persist, the sector will have trouble growing production.

“If Canada is not able to recruit and be able to build the expertise needed to grow our industry, we’re not going to be able to, not only supply our domestic market with responsible energy products, but we’re also not going to be able to support the growing energy demands and energy security issues that many of our key allies are looking for,” he said.

‘Change of pace’

Gary Rowan, 29, from Maskwacis, Alta., is training at SATO, a facility with a telescopic drilling rig created by Pitbull Energy Services in the small town of Millet, about 54 kilometres south of Edmonton.

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Gary Rowan is training to use heavy equipment, such as vacuum trucks and water trucks, at the SATO training facility in Millet. (Julia Wong/CBC)

There, Rowan is getting experience working with heavy equipment, such as vacuum trucks and water trucks. He previously worked maintenance on oil and gas vehicles and equipment, but said he decided to switch gears and start training on the heavy equipment several months ago.

“I needed a change of pace, change in scenery and stuff like that. Coming to the rig is an amazing opportunity I got here,” he said.

Some companies are offering signing bonuses or other incentives to attract workers. 

Chissell said his family-run operation can’t compete with large bonuses but he is offering flexible hours for staff so they can start earlier and get home to their families earlier.

Scholz, the president and CEO of the Canadian Association of Energy Contractors, also said that he is hearing more that people want greater flexibility.

“We always found that the workforce was very interested in putting as many hours in as they could. Not so much today — we’re seeing that the demographics are changing and there is that element of a work-life balance that is very important to this new generation that’s coming up and companies are responding to that,” he said.

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