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Regina Leader-Post (Saskatchewan) Energy growth won’t weaken

By DEREK SANKEY for CanWest News ServiceCalgary Herald
Saturday 13 January 2007

CALGARY— After a record year of growth and energy prices, oil and gas companies say an anticipated moderation in the pace of activity in 2007 will only give them an opportunity to focus on hiring more workers to catch up to pent-up demand.

“We have a structural problem,” says David Fulton, vice-president of human resources at Shell Canada Ltd. “I do not think the shortage is going to go away any time soon, and that was one of the big debates 18 months ago.”

The industry has been so overwhelmed by the incredible need for everything from oilfield service technicians to geophysicists and engineers that any slight moderation in activity will simply allow the industry to catch its collective breath and continue the hiring frenzy.

“It’s hot all over,” says Fulton. “There are very few cold skills, or even lukewarm ones anymore.”

Part of the “structural problem” stems from the fact that the industry is so cyclical in nature that during the 1980s and ’90s, companies discouraged people from entering fields such as project management.

Now, project managers with 15 or 20 years of experience are among the most highly sought-after occupations in the oilpatch, he says.

Couple the past reactionary hiring policies of many energy companies with today’s demographic crunch — most baby boomers will retire within five years — and the result is a long-term labour shortage that is forcing companies to use every available workforce development tool.

Because the energy sector is a highly capital-intensive industry, “we have never paid attention to labour costs in the same way that big manufacturing industries would,” says Fulton. “Our industry is going to have to look hard at what some of these other industries do and see what we can copy and build into our own industry.”

Suncor Energy, which directly employs more than 5,000 workers and thousands of other contractors indirectly, has massive investments already on the books, such as the oilsands, that any moderation won’t affect the hiring outlook.

“We’re trying to project our (labour) needs much further in advance and looking everywhere where those talented people can be found. We will provide employment for upwards of 12,000 contractors at any given point in time over the next five years,” says Don Heath, vicepresident of human resources for Suncor, adding the level of competition in the industry has forced companies to be as creative in their efforts as possible.

Most big oil companies are already working closely with post-secondary institutions to help increase the new graduate labour pool. Suncor president and chief executive Rick George, for example, sits on NAIT’s capital committee with the ambition of doubling the size of the Edmonton institute.

Similar relationships are underway with SAIT in Calgary and all three publicly-funded universities in the province.

Hiring certainly doesn’t stop at the provincial border, though. Companies routinely recruit workers from Eastern Canada, while some of the firms’ contractors have brought in foreign temporary workers as part of the labour solution.

Heath says the increased demand for workers in all fields of the sector is no longer a trend. “I think they’re probably less trends than they are the new reality.”

In the oilfield supply side of the business, Ron Koper, vice-president of business effectiveness for oilfield supply and service company CE Franklin, says even though he’s planning for a 20 per cent slowdown in the marketplace this year, it won’t affect hiring efforts or the overall job outlook.

“We’re anticipating increased competition for labour, not decreased,” says Koper, adding any slowdown will likely only last about eight months before activity picks up again.

Industry associations are also working on solutions to the massive job demand. The Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada — a federal sector council based in Calgary — has struck up a deal with the government of Saskatchewan to build the overall labour pool in Western Canada.

“Governments are interested in ensuring business opportunities that come to their provinces don’t leave it because they’re not able to support those business opportunities with a skilled workforce,” says Cheryl Knight, president and executive director of the sector council.

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