Another labour crunch?

Demand for skilled trades in the oilsands likely to increase in 2011-12

A graph depicting construction activity on the Construction Sector Council's website for 2006-15 that refers mostly to Alberta's oilsands construction shows a line marking the period from early 2006 to mid-2007 that shoots up almost vertically. It then levels off before dropping sharply for 2009.

According to the council, investment in engineering construction-a category that outside of bridges and highways in Alberta mostly means oilsands-jumped from $10.6 billion in 2006 to $15.6 billion in 2007. Spending had dropped to just over $13.6 billion for this sector by 2009.

Earlier this year, some energy industry watchers were taken aback by the number of oilsands projects that were announced. Few had expected them to be revived so soon after they had been put on the shelf when the global economy went sour in 2008.

The province's recent wild swings in oilsands construction activity levels are viewed by labour market specialists as having a strong impact on the availability of the required skilled trades for major projects.

"Before the recession, we could not rely solely on other provinces to supply the amounts of skilled people needed," says Herb Holmes, Edmonton manager for Construction Labour Relations-Alberta and chair of the Alberta Labour Market Information Committee at the Construction Sector Council. "We also sourced from various parts of the world. Then the recession threw a lot of people out of work."

Over the 2006-08 period, Alberta experienced its greatest-ever construction boom, with shortages in many trades. Oilsands developers flew crews of skilled workers from anywhere in Canada they could be had, as well as from outside the country. The total number of tradespeople, including their helpers, working on construction in the province hit 160,570 in 2007. In 2009, by contrast, the peak employment level for the sector had dropped to 132,000, according to Construction Sector Council figures from February.

Those figures also include some projections to 2018. The council forecasts gradually increasing employment for trades over the coming years, with projected numbers for peak employment for all trades falling just short of the 2007 peak in 2018 at 158,000. For oilsands construction trades like boilermakers, electricians, steamfitters, pipefitters, and welders, demand is expected to ramp up at a slightly quicker pace from 2011 to 2015.

Holmes points to several projects that will start construction later this year or early 2011. These include a Suncor Firebag expansion, a Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. Horizon expansion, Imperial's Kearl mining project, Husky Energy's Sunrise thermal project, and a ConocoPhillips thermal project.

Besides the construction projects, a series of what Holmes terms "sustaining capital projects" in the oilsands is just around the corner. These include re-configuring mine sites to adjust to the moving mine-face, adjustments to increase production capacity, and major maintenance shutdowns, which can employ up to 2,000 people, mostly boilermakers, pipefitters, and welders, for a couple of months.

Says Holmes: "Sometime in 2011-2012, we may again be bumping up against the ceiling of what skilled trades we can get out of Canada, especially if there are two or three megaprojects [under construction] at the same time."

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