Canada’s oilpatch is getting nerdy

Carol Howes discusses present and future employment in Canada’s energy sector

by Jamie Schmidt
Carol Howes is Vice President of Communications and the PetroLMI division at Energy Safety Canada.

Carol Howes is Vice President of Communications and the PetroLMI division at Energy Safety Canada. — Photo courtesy Carol Howes

The world is rethinking its energy supply, hydrocarbons have usurped tobacco as society’s greatest villain, and Alberta recently elected a government bent on returning the province to the glory days of an oilsands boom. This evolution is as messy as it is unstoppable. It will change oil and gas work across the industry. For many, it already has.

Carol Howes’s 30-year career in communications includes stints with a consulting firm, a national public affairs firm, one of Canada’s largest energy companies and as a business journalist. Currently a member of the National Stakeholder Advisory Panel for the Labour Market Information Council and vice president of communications at the PetroLMI Division of Energy Safety Canada, Howes presented Building the Next Generation of Canada’s Oil and Gas Workers as part of the technical conference at the 2019 Global Petroleum Show in Calgary.

Current state of the industry

In April 2019, PetroLMI predicted a further loss of 12,500 jobs in the oilpatch over the remainder of the year. After five years of mounting layoffs and despite record-low Canadian unemployment rate, Howes attributes this continuing deterioration in employment to three factors:

  • Low oil and gas prices that began in 2014 have caused workforce restructuring as companies prioritized cost management … [including] technical improvements and innovation or mergers and acquisitions.
  • Stalled progress on pipeline development and LNG infrastructure is driving lower spending and therefore lower employment.
  • The curtailments introduced by the Alberta government in 2018 decreased drilling activity.

“Most of the job losses are expected in the services sub-sector,” said Howes. “The occupations most at risk … are those tied to capital spending and growth or impacted by productivity enhancements.” Mergers and acquisitions will also take their toll.

That last bullet point is one Howes revisits when asked about what’s missing in the ongoing political debates about employment in the oil and gas industry. “There is still a misperception of the impacts of policies on the oil and gas workforce … curtailments have improved the price of oil, however, they decreased drilling activity and therefore the number of those working in the services industry.”

The winds of change

You would have to go back to the mid-1980s for a comparable disruption in the oil and gas industry. Many current workers and recently unemployed weren’t even born in those tumultuous days of the National Energy Program. But for those who were, this downturn does feel a little different, though similarly painful.

Technology and, more importantly, automation are impacting all disciplines within the industry. One striking example is the use of autonomous heavy haulers in oil sand mining operations. Howes cited a 2018 PetroLMI report, A Workforce in Transition: Oil and Gas Skills of the Future, which contains a graph from the Brookfield Institute for Innovation showing the percentage of tasks that can be automated for various oil and gas occupations.

A tall lime-green bar shows that 79 per cent of job tasks for heavy equipment operators, excluding crane operators, can be automated. For welders and related machine operators, the number jumps to a startling 93 per cent, a serious blow for proponents of trades. Office staff fare little better with 65 per cent of geoscientists’ tasks susceptible to automation. Only petroleum engineers, at 19 per cent, seem relatively immune to the ceaseless march of technology.

Building the next generation

The current situation is daunting and potentially impervious to new pipeline construction or commodity price rebound, but Howes remains optimistic. “There are still tremendous opportunities in oil and gas,” she said. “The industry is a pillar of Canada’s economy and will remain so for years to come. Advancements in the way industry operates—technological, environmental and safety … mean the industry needs the best and brightest minds on the job.”

In other words, the industry isn’t going anywhere but the jobs within it are evolving. Current workers must be nimble and willing to adapt. Future workers—the next generation—will need a new skill set heavy on technology.

Howes’s advice for field workers is straightforward. “Technological literacy skills will be required in addition to physical ability,” she said. As an example, she mentioned an increased need for technologists, “as sensors are applied to more equipment and there’s an increased need to collect and analyze data.”

A similar story unfolds for office workers. Howes said, “Software engineers, data management, and analytics specialists, as well as, IT roles to support and maintain equipment will be more broadly required.”

Howes concluded with an interesting comment. “[For both field and office workers] technology is improving operations and decision-making, increasing safety and efficiency, and freeing up workers to focus on higher value tasks.” Future jobs in the oil and gas industry may be lighter in numbers, but for those with the right skill set, it will remain a lucrative career.

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