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When Talisman Energy Inc. laid off 90 staff at its Calgary office in February, it was a high profile example that persistent discounts for Canadian crude oil and low natural gas prices in North America have taken a bite out of Western Canada’s petroleum boom. More layoffs in the oil patch are rumored as companies continue to trim capital budgets for 2013 and rein in activity, cooling off what had been a red-hot market. However, it’s not as if activity has disappeared across the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin. And with thousands of baby boomers set to retire over the next decade and ample oil and natural gas reserves left to tap, the sector will no doubt boom again.


And when the next boom comes, the need for labor will be as urgent as ever. What follows are the stories of three companies that have employed specific strategies to tackle their need for human capital – strategies that they hope will not only help them meet the labor challenges of today, but the ones that are yet to come.

CanElson Drilling Inc.In January, CanElson Drilling Inc. got a new partner. As it rang in 2013, the Calgary-based energy services company announced that it had reached an agreement with File Hills Qu’Appelle Tribal Council’s business arm – FHQTC Developments LP. Under the joint venture, CanElson and FHQTC both own a 50 per cent interest in a limited partnership that owns an existing CanElson drilling rig.
But the deal represents much more than joint ownership of a single rig. For CanElson it potentially gives it access to a precious resource: aboriginal workers. “One of the biggest challenges today is looking out into the three to five year range and asking where we are going to get employees as people retire, move up, and as we expand the business,” says Randy Hawkings, CanElson’s president and CEO. “We are really looking to the First Nations to have folks that want to get into the business.”

As the oil and gas industry looks for new blood to filter into the sector, Canada’s growing aboriginal population is seen as an underutilized asset. By partnering with the Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan-based First Nation, CanElson gets to know FHQTC’s leaders and the community it serves, build relationships and hopefully attract its residents to start a career with the company.

Turnover can be high at the entry level in the oil and gas sector. But CanElson will be supplying the training in its joint venture with FHQTC and, for the beginners who stick it out, the oil patch can offer them a long and rewarding career. “The oil and gas industry needs more people,” Hawkings says. “Generally, if you can work on a drilling rig you can work in virtually any facet of the industry.”

With operations in Western Canada, Mexico, Texas and North Dakota, CanElson certainly has a need for new workers. Accessing more of a growing aboriginal labor pool through partnerships like the one it struck with FHQTC could help meet some of the need. “There are 15-20 people for every rig, and having access to people who want to work and learn something new is a huge advantage for our corporation,” Hawkings says. “We already have a partnership with the First Nations and can consult with them and support them and their business as they supply new labor and support ours. It has been very satisfying and rewarding for all the parties involved.”

Imperial Oil Ltd.Instead of depending on colleges and universities to pump out graduates to fill its labor gap, Imperial Oil Ltd. has taken a more direct approach – developing its own training program that targets women. “The idea of women working in the oil industry is nothing new, but this program is geared toward teaching them heavy equipment operation,” says Pius Rolheiser, Imperial Oil’s spokesperson.
The program is the Women Building Futures and Imperial Oil Heavy Equipment Operator Program run out of Portage College in Lac La Biche, Alberta.

The company approached Women Building Futures – an Edmonton-based organization founded in 1998 to give women the theory, skill training and workplace conditioning tailored for construction trades – about recruiting and training women for the course. The end result was development of a 12-week program geared to training women as heavy equipment operators at the company’s Kearl oil sands project north of Fort McMurray. In February, the program began and had 16 women enrolled.

The Kearl project is vitally important to Imperial Oil’s future growth plans. The company expects to eventually produce 350,000 barrels per day from the open pit mine site during its 40-year life. The first phase of the Kearl project, which the company says will cost $12.9 billion, will pump out 110,000 barrels per day and is expected to produce first oil in 2013.

The bitumen won’t get mined by itself, however, and a project as large and with as long a life as Kearl will need plenty of workers. That is where the heavy equipment operator program comes in. Through Portage College, students will be able to gain their training for heavy equipment operation and engineering. They will learn about safety certifications, oilfield driving, heavy equipment skills, the various positions available after graduation, and more. During the 12-week course and afterward, Imperial Oil will have students working on site at the Kearl oil sands project to gain educational and on the job work experience.

Rolheiser says that he believes the program will pay dividends for the company and the women who complete it. “For Imperial Oil it’s a potential investment in our future because the Kearl project will require heavy equipment operators,” he says. “More importantly, this program helps to make these women better candidates, period. The goal of the program is to make them better prospective job candidates for Imperial Oil and also for others.”

While the industry has talked about the need to get more women into the oil and gas industry, the oil patch remains a man’s world. According to a report issued this winter by Hays – an Australian-based human resources firm – just 10.2 per cent of North America’s oil and gas workforce are women. Clearly, the industry needs to do more to attract women. Imperial Oil’s new program is a small step in that direction.

Iroc Energy Services Corp.

Do the men and women tasked with keeping the peace in dangerous and troubled places like Afghanistan have the makings of model employees on drilling rigs?

Tom Alford, who was president and CEO of Iroc Energy Services Corp. before it was acquired in February by Western Energy Services Corp. in a deal worth $193.7 million, thinks so.
When IROC was in the middle of building new service rigs in 2011 and 2012, labor was a constant worry for Alford. “The one thing that constrains our ability to ramp up as an industry is the lack of qualified personnel,” Alford says. “There are a lot of participants looking for the same people. We’re in continual training mode.”

Indeed. Getting entry-level roughnecks on a rig crew to stick it out is a challenge – made even more difficult by the boom-and-bust nature of the drilling business where workers can rapidly go from having too much work to none at all. Long stretches away from family and friends and working in remote locations can also sour new workers (and experienced ones) on a career in the drilling business.

However, these kinds of working conditions likely won’t faze people with experience in Canada’s armed forces. They often have to work in far-off countries, and spending time away from loved ones comes with the territory. Ex-military types are also accustomed to taking orders, working in stressful situations and being punctual, which makes them ideal candidates for working in the oilfield. And it’s a pool that Alford and IROC specifically targeted. “We have had some success with veterans returning from [the armed forces] who are discharged from the services,” he says. “They’re trained, they’re disciplined, they’re the type of people we are looking for.”

With approximately 24,000 current armed forces members, this is a sizable labor pool drilling companies in Western Canada can draw from. They won’t all leave the military for jobs on drilling rigs, but for those that do and stick with it, they have a good chance of having a long career in the oil patch.

“Turnover is mostly at the entry level. Once we get them trained and into a position and they’re making a very solid living, there isn’t as much turnover at the top end with our rig managers, drillers and derrick hands,” Alford says.
Source: Alberta Oil

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