For John Zahary, engineering runs in the family.
During a recent family breakfast, about 11 of the 14 relatives sitting around the table had either earned their iron ring or were well on their way.
The son of a mining engineer, as a young man Mr. Zahary saw the wealth that could be made in the oil and gas sector after his family moved from northern Ontario to Calgary in the late 1970s.
Thirty-five years later, the mechanical engineer who heads up a Calgary-based oil sands firm is watching his son and daughter follow in his footsteps.
“It wasn’t my guidance counsellor who suggested I should pursue engineering, it was looking across the kitchen table,” said Mr. Zahary, president and chief executive of Sunshine Oilsands. “To some extent, you follow your parents.”
You also follow the money.
A recent report on labour market demands in the oil and gas sector forecasts significant need for engineers across the disciplines in the next nine years.
Petroleum engineers — Mr. Zahary’s children will each have a minor degree in this discipline within the next nine months, with majors in mechanical — are expected to be hot commodities.
Last year, the oil and gas industry employed nearly 7,000 petroleum engineers, which made the discipline among the top 10 sources of employment in the industry. And the demand is only expected to grow. The Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada estimates the oil and gas industry will need roughly another 1,100 petroleum engineers by 2015.
Should pipeline and LNG approvals give producers greater access to foreign markets, that demand is expected to rise to 1,300, the report states. By 2022, there are expected to be about 2,100 to 2,900 job openings in petroleum engineering, depending on whether producers are able to open up access to outside markets.
The researchers are also forecasting labour shortages in chemical, mechanical, civil, mining and electrical engineering.
Petroleum engineers assess costs and evaluate the economic viability of drilling locations, estimate production capabilities of wells and design methods to extract and process the resource, among other work.
In August, the recruitment firm Trillium Talent Resource Group closed postings for three Calgary petroleum engineering jobs that paid $75,000 to $100,000 for just three to five years of experience.
In the United States, university graduates with petroleum engineering degrees receive the biggest starting salary, an average of $93,500, a March survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found.
Since petroleum engineering is a specialty, few Canadian universities offer it, which means the industry has hired engineers from other disciplines, such as chemical and mechanical, to train them in the petroleum discipline, said Cheryl Knight, executive director of the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada.
Demand in Canada is expected to be fuelled by increased oil sands production and retirements. The oil and gas industry is on track to lose 25% of its engineering workforce in the next 10 years to age-related attrition, Ms. Knight said.
“Very often people in professional positions that have been in the oil patch for a number of years have pretty good retirement savings plans, stock option plans,” she said. “And we’re losing them.”
Ms. Knight said new recruits would continue to be in demand as the industry develops. But, she added, oil and gas companies cannot replace seasoned workers with new graduates, which means they will have to recruit senior engineers from their competitors or from abroad.
Some companies find themselves bringing back retired engineers on contract to train new or intermediate workers and get them up to speed, said Steve Berman, director of engineering and technical recruitment for recruitment firm Roevin’s Calgary operations.
The Fort Hills mine north of Fort McMurray, owned jointly by Suncor Energy, Teck Resources and Total S.A., is expected to be the catalyst to “kick off the next hiring boom,” should Suncor decide later this year to invest in the project, Mr. Berman said.
Suncor and Total had earlier shelved their $11.6-billion Voyageur upgrader project, which was expected to employ 5,000 workers onsite alone, citing unfavourable market conditions.
Other Alberta producers have become hesitant to pull the trigger on large capital projects, given difficulties in transporting their product, and are not in a panic to get them done, said Mark Matters, vice-president of engineering and technical recruitment at Roevin.
There have also been concerns with the discounted price for Canadian crude.
Should Fort Hills move ahead, the companies would have to look outside Canada to find all the engineers they need, Mr. Berman said. “The reality is there is not a deep enough talent pool or a number of people available in Canada to satisfy the scope of these projects,” he said.
With big projects, recruiters will first look to the United States and the United Kingdom, avoiding cultural and language barriers, before searching in regions with backgrounds in large-scale projects, such as the Middle East, he said.
Canada’s temporary foreign workers program faced intense scrutiny after it was revealed the Royal Bank of Canada was outsourcing jobs to replace Canadian employees. But Mr. Berman stressed that recruiting foreign engineers with the right skills to work on massive oil and gas projects is much more expensive than hiring domestically.
“When we’re talking about foreign workers, it’s not a cheap solution. It’s a necessary solution after we’ve exhausted our internal labour pool,” he said.
Mr. Zahary said Sunshine Oilsands picked up a couple of new engineering graduates this year and expects it will continue to hire as it develops its properties in the Athabasca oil sands region.
He’s bullish that the industry as a whole will continue to need to pull workers in from other regions of the country to fuel its growth, stressing it’s important for governments and universities to ensure Canadians know what opportunities could be waiting for them in Alberta.
“We go through different cycles here but for the most part this industry and this town and this province has been in a continuous process of attracting people from wherever we can get them,” Mr. Zahary said.
“Part of that is making sure other parts of the country, including the parts of the country where unemployment can be a challenge, that they know that there are significant opportunities in this part of the world.”
Source: Financial Post