Energy workers switch to other professions in droves as work dries up in once booming sector


Beset by layoffs, Canada’s energy and mining workers have been bucking tradition and seeking opportunities in other sectors — quite successfully, by all accounts.

“The cyclical changes in the resource sector are giving way to structural changes,” said Jeanette Sutherland, director of the multi-stakeholder Energy to Digital Growth Education and Upskilling Project (EDGE UP) at Calgary Economic Development, which since 2019 has trained displaced oil and gas sector professionals for IT jobs available in fields such as data science, software development and cybersecurity.

According to social media website LinkedIn’s Workforce Insights’ December newsletter, resource workers have traditionally been “much less likely” than others to switch industries. But that’s changing: by early 2020, nearly 60 per cent of displaced energy and mining industry workers starting new jobs found opportunities in other industries. Manufacturing was the foremost destination, followed by construction, software and IT services, corporate services, and finance.

Indeed, LinkedIn’s data demonstrates that, since the pandemic began, energy and mining workers have been applying for jobs in other industries more frequently than displaced workers in other sectors.

Unemployment among oil and gas workers in particular peaked at 16.1 per cent in 2020, reducing the workforce to 26 per cent below 2014 levels, according to PetroLMI, an industry labour market information provider. And while things have improved, with LinkedIn reporting that its hiring rate in the resource sector was up 12.7 per cent in November from two years previous, it lagged the hiring rate for all industries, which grew 19.7 per cent.

Indeed, the resource workforce continued to shed workers between September and November 2021, although the outflow was a third less than in the same period in 2020.

Energy workers are making the switch in the midst of uncertainty around oil prices, a resource sector bent on doing more with less by using technology to improve efficiency and productivity, COVID-19 impacts, a global price war, question marks over major energy projects and attendant layoffs at major producers over the past two years.

“Some 79 per cent of participants in our program have been displaced for more than a year, and 48 per cent lost their job two to five years ago and haven’t been able to re-engage,” Sutherland said.

This, despite the fact that most are highly skilled professionals: about 30 per cent are petroleum engineers, 26 per cent are geoscientists, and the rest electrical or chemical engineers and technologists, or engineering managers. Add in the depth of their experience, and what emerges are individuals with what Sutherland calls “key foundational skill sets.”

“For example, we discovered that 50 per cent of geoscientists have 60 per cent of the core competencies to become data analysts, and that engineers have 50 per cent of the skills to transition into project manager roles, which are in high demand,” Sutherland said. “So upskilling at EDGE UP allows them to pivot into new jobs across many different sectors — especially tech, where 2,000 jobs remain unfilled in Alberta right now.”

Indeed, “upskilling” seems to be the name of the game in a transitioning Alberta economy. International Data Corporation, a global provider of marketing intelligence for the IT and telecom sectors, predicts that Calgary businesses will spend $2.3 billion on digital transformation in the energy and environment sectors between 2021 and 2024.

“Some 10 per cent of the professionals in our program got employment offers when they were just 75 per cent of their way through training,” Sutherland said.

That’s no surprise to Travis O’Rourke, president at Hays Canada, a recruitment firm.

“For decades, the oil and gas industry paid the best salaries, so the people who’ve worked there are incredibly talented and hot commodities when they become available,” he said. “The industry also demands a great deal of dedication and a very strong work ethic, particularly from field workers.”

With commodity prices rising, however, resource employment has recovered somewhat. According to Statistics Canada, November saw an 11.2 per cent increase in employment in the resource sector from the low in April 2020.

“We are seeing some new projects and re-starts lately, so demand is creeping up again,” O’Rourke said.

Yet the future remains uncertain. In April, TD economists forecast that up to 75 per cent of the 600,000 workers employed directly or indirectly in Canada’s oil and gas sector are at risk of displacement through 2050.


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