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Workers Pick Job Stability Over Higher Wages as Oil Rig Operator Scrambles for Crews

Job stability and a 40-hour work week are emerging as higher priorities for western Canadian workers than the high wages they could once earn in the oilfield services industry, as a new reality of unsteady or crashing oil prices enters its eighth year.

In a story last week datelined Estevan, Saskatchewan—the country’s second-most fossil-dependent community, with the industry providing 20.7% of its employment in 2016—the Globe and Mail profiles an oil drilling company that was having trouble organizing crews for its rigs.

The most frequently-asked question from prospective employees: “How long will the job last?” the Globe reports.

“Employment in the cyclical oil and gas sector has always had its ups and downs, whether caused by the price of crude or spring breakup, when melting snow and frost cause the ground to become soft and muddy, slowing down production,” writes (fossil) energy reporter Emma Graney. But “in a sector plagued by uncertainty, money is no longer the driving factor it once was. Instead, workers crave stability. As a result, while traditional oil and gas work picks up and the sector diversifies into drilling helium, lithium, and geothermal wells, it has become increasingly difficult to find those willing to give up a steady job—even one that pays less.”

Before the 2014 crash, oilfield workers were in short supply, and “it was nothing to pay someone $25 an hour just to sweep the floors,” the Globe recalls. It was around the same time that Steve Laut, then president of Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., warned that the industry faced a “death spiral” unless producers could get a break on the “made in Fort McMurray cost” of doing business.

The better part of a decade later, times have indeed changed, oilfield services veteran and Panther Drilling President Cory Hicks told the Globe.

“With the downturn like this, when I try to hire an employee, he’ll ask, ‘How long is the work for?’ Because maybe he’s making a third of the money, but why would he quit a full-time job to come out and work for two weeks or a month?” he said. “I didn’t think we’d ever see it like this, but it’s definitely a thing.”

Mark Scholz, president and CEO of the newly-rebranded Canadian Association of Energy Contractors (formerly the Canadian Association of Oilwell Drilling Contractors), said the inconsistency of work in a fragile fossil energy sector had pushed many former oil and gas workers into other industries.

The pay elsewhere might not be as high, he told the Globe, “but they’re looking at it as, ‘I get to be home every night, I don’t have to live in camps, I don’t have to be away from my family or friends.’ Leaving a stable, consistent work environment for something that we haven’t been able to demonstrate is stable and consistent work—those are some trade-offs you have to grapple with.”

The Globe says fossil industry employment has been rebounding from last year’s pandemic-induced lows. But Scholz pointed to a deeper shift in the industry, citing the premium many younger workers place on work-life balance, along with the federal government’s talk about just transition legislation.

“We are hearing some of the issues about a newer generation looking at the industry and saying, ‘Well, gosh, is this a sunset industry?’” Scholz said. “I think the industry needs to start thinking about other tools and ways of incentivizing and encouraging people to come into the industry.”