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

The price of oil has risen steadily over the past few months, and while this should be good news for the energy-producing province of Alberta, it has instead highlighted a problem: there is not enough of workers.

The province fell into a recession in 2014 when the price of oil plummeted, putting Alberta in dire financial straits and forcing many oil and gas workers to lose their jobs.

But prices soared after sanctions against Russia reduced its exports. Moreover, after a low at the start of the pandemic, oil consumption is now almost back to pre-pandemic levels.

And now that things are on the rise again, companies ranging from family businesses to large companies serving the oil and gas sector are struggling to recruit enough labor to meet the growing demand.

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Pitbull Energy Services, an Edmonton-based oil and gas services company, is looking to hire about 100 truckers but is struggling to find qualified people. Chairman and CEO Sami Hayek said the company was operating at 60% capacity until those positions were filled, and that he wished he had filled those positions “yesterday.”

“We’re still short. We’re still recruiting. We’re still training. It’s an ongoing problem that we face,” he said.

“It’s never been so bad.”

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

“It’s really frustrating. It’s frustrating, but we’re trying to get through it,” he said.

Family businesses also feel pinched

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

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

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

“If we had more people here, of course, your workload would spread out and you could produce more.”

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

Workers were ‘moving on’

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

“The pool we relied on has moved into other occupations – trades, construction – and found other employment elsewhere, whether in Western Canada, or returned home to jurisdictions where we have traditionally recruited, like central Canada and eastern Canada,” he said.

Labor shortages began to become evident in mid-2021, Scholz said, adding that the workforce was looking for signals of stability, after years of low activity, before people returned to the area.

He said the sector has seen some of the best drilling activity for a very long time, adding that the association predicts the sector could bring as many as 30 rigs to market – if there were enough workers.

About 220 direct and indirect employees are needed for each active drilling rig, he said, meaning there is potential for about 6,000 additional jobs.

A vacuum truck is in use at SATO, a training facility operated by Pitbull Energy Services in Millet, Alberta. (Julia Wong/CBC)

“It’s not trivial,” Scholz said.

The association said that if staffing problems persist, the sector will struggle to increase production.

“If Canada is unable to recruit and develop the expertise needed to grow our industry, we will not only be unable to supply our domestic market with responsible energy products, but we will also not be able to meet the growing energy demands and energy security concerns sought by many of our key allies,” he said.

“Change of Pace”

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

Gary Rowan trains in the use of heavy equipment, such as vacuum trucks and tank trucks, at the SATO training center in Millet. (Julia Wong/CBC)

There, Rowan gains experience working with heavy equipment, such as vacuum trucks and tank trucks. He previously worked maintaining oil and gas vehicles and equipment, but said he decided to switch gears and start heavy equipment training several months ago.

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

Some companies offer signing bonuses or other incentives to attract workers.

Chissell said his family business couldn’t compete with big bonuses, but he offered flexible hours for staff so they could start earlier and go home earlier.

Scholz, president and CEO of the Canadian Association of Energy Entrepreneurs, also said he’s heard more and more that people want more flexibility.

“We’ve always found the workforce to be very interested in putting in as many hours as possible. Not so much today – we’re seeing the demographics change and there’s this element of work-life balance that is very important for this new generation coming in and companies are reacting to that,” he said.