Workplace safety, labour shortages and renewable sources of energy were just a few of the topics of interest during a busy day at the 2012 Dawson Creek Energy Conference on Thursday, September 20.
The second – and biggest – day of the event saw representatives from the oil and gas industry, the service sector, educational institutions, crown corporations and the government participate in six discussions of significant energy sector subjects both as speakers and attentive listeners.
The day began with a focus on labour issues both in terms of the seemingly constant struggle to find the necessary workers and how women are starting to play a bigger role in the energy industry.
“We don’t have an equal number of women in the energy industry,” said Tina Olivero, founder and publisher of Oil and Gas Magazine, as well as facilitator of the women in industry roundtable.
“There is a huge opportunity there,” she added.
“Women are still sorely underrepresented in the trades,” said Kevin Evans, CEO of the Industry Training Authority (ITA), during a simultaneous discussion on how the industry can meet the challenge of a labour shortage.
Evans described the labour situation in terms of the billions of dollars to be invested in energy sector projects ranging from oil pipelines to liquefied natural gas (LNG) export facilities over the next ten years and the lack of “human capital” that could adversely impact those developments.
The ITA predicts a need to fill 2,910 trades jobs in British Columbia by 2020. That includes 1,710 workers to replace those who will be retiring and 1,200 new positions due to industry expansion.
“This is a very conservative outlook,” said Evans, noting that the most recently announced projects aren’t included in that forecast.
The labour picture for northeast B.C. as described by Evans is a complex one where there is simultaneously an aging workforce whose experience and mentorship will be lost to retirement and a declining youth population. The result is a relatively small workforce of just 41,000 people that has been hard to grow due to negative perceptions of the region and the oil and gas industry in other parts of the province and the country. For example, Evans noted that 20 per cent of first year welders in the Lower Mainland are choosing unemployment over relocating to the northeast.
Steve Troyer of Energy Services BC (ESBC) told the labour roundtable that the way to correct that problem is to try to attract families, not just workers, and that begins with affordable housing and improved roads so that workers are spending less time in camps.
It also involves creating a comfortable workplace environment for those individuals who haven’t traditionally been part of the oil and gas industry workforce in northeast B.C., a demographic that includes women as well as new Canadians who may have trouble communicating with those unfamiliar with their languages and accents.
“You see mostly white guys,” Troyer said of the oil patch of northeast B.C.
“We must make our communities welcoming to a more diverse population,” he added.
Olivero doesn’t believe the workplace culture of the oil and gas industry should be a barrier to women joining the sector, however.
“I don’t think that there’s anything really stopping women. I think there’s a lot of preconceived limitations that aren’t true,” she said.
“I started working in the industry when there was only three women in it,” she continued. “Myself included. And the rest were men.
“I could have gone either way with that. I could have thought, ‘This is great. I get to hang out with the guys all the time, have fun and do whatever I want.’ Or I could have been intimidated. And it’s a choice.
“There is no room for intimidation. There is no room for thinking that you’re inferior. And that’s where inequality comes from. It doesn’t come from the actual environment. It comes from people thinking that for some reason they don’t fit in. And that is not the truth.”
Adequate training is another key concern, said Evans, who noted that there are measures in the BC Jobs Plan to help improve industry training through programs such as $17 million to upgrade equipment used for training purposes.
“This is a critical need,” said Evans, emphasizing the importance of “training our young people in equipment they’ll be using in the field.”
There is also the problem of too many apprentices who have been unsuccessful in finding employers despite the labour shortage.
Evans remarked that it could be a case of insufficient training.
“Let’s identify where the gaps are,” he said. “And then let’s train to the gaps.”
Evans admitted that the lingering effects of the recent recession may be deterring employers from sponsoring apprentices, but he hopes they will reconsider that stance.
“There is a very solid business case to taking on an apprentice,” said Evans.
“Poaching is no longer an option for recruiting,” he added.
The problem is significant, according to Evans, because there are currently only 401 sponsors for 1036 registered apprentices in northeast B.C.
“This is not going to be sufficient,” he said.
The gap between the number of apprentices and the number of sponsors might suggest that the industry is attracting plenty of young people to fill the roles they require. However, Peter Nunoda, vice president of academic and research at Northern Lights College (NLC), said that the college recently lost its geomatics program not because geomatics professionals aren’t a hot commodity, but because there were insufficient students to continue the program.
“The issue is not the programming,” he said.
“We can’t get the students that we need.”
Nunoda indicated a need to reach students at a younger age to make them aware of their options and push them in the right direction, but Troyer suggested that part of the problem is simply how the industry relates to young people.
At his own company, Troyer faces the challenge of recruiting non-skilled workers, which often means selling those individuals on a job they may not have considered previously.
“Good people that can get the job done,” he said of his workforce needs.
Troyer’s target demographic is people between the age of 25 and 35, a group that is unlikely to look for a job in the newspaper, but would prefer to search and apply for jobs via Facebook. Facebook has been blocked at his company, but Troyer is now reversing that policy for managers so that they can make contact with potential employees.
“The key is working together to solve our own problem,” said Troyer.
Another key conversation during that hectic day at the energy conference involved discussions of new technologies and green and renewable energy.
“Some of the bigger companies like AltaGas… have a variety of projects on the go, such as wind and micro-hydro,” said Matthew MacWilliam, energy manager for the City of Dawson Creek, who facilitated two sessions on green energy and renewable energy.
MacWilliam thinks the inclusion of those initiatives in the energy conference discussion is a recognition that there is a need for all available forms of energy to satisfy demand in a sustainable manner.
“We’re looking at energy more holistically now,” said MacWilliam. “It’s not necessarily the green versus the oil and gas as much anymore. We’re starting to see more synergies.
“It will become more common in the future.”
MacWilliam also believes the oil and gas industry is starting to recognize the opportunities to use renewable energy for their own operations, such as using solar energy when they don’t have access to the electricity grid.
“It’s an alternative to using diesel no matter where you are,” he said.
“It might not be as cheap as grid electricity,” he added, “but they don’t have grid electricity.”
Links between producing oil and gas and producing other forms of energy also exist.
“There’s going to be more and more opportunities to create energy when you’re already creating energy,” said MacWilliam, citing geothermal as an example.
“What they’re talking about is a very similar technology to oil and gas,” he continued. “Oil and gas is extracting the oil, but, in the process, 95 per cent of what’s coming out of that hole, for the most part, is hot water. Hot water can be used to create steam electricity. So, you’re already kind of doing the same thing. You’re just not aware of it.
“There’s going to be more and more opportunities for oil companies to expand their appetite to look at other opportunities to create energy beyond just oil and gas.”