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The Western Canadian energy sector never fully recovered from the global crash in 2014–15.SHAWN FULTON/The Globe and Mail

As Cory Hicks and his office crew from Panther Drilling phoned around to oil-rig workers in southeast Saskatchewan recently, trying to pull together a crew, they kept hearing one question: “How long will the job last?”

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.

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. But the Western Canadian sector never fully recovered from the global crash in 2014–15. And for many, last year’s pandemic-induced shock to crude demand and a price war that saw prices plunge into negative territory were the final straw.

Mr. Hicks has been working in the oil sector since he was 17. He started off on the rigs and is now president of Panther Drilling in the small Saskatchewan city of Weyburn.

Before 2014, the region’s big problem was finding enough workers to fill the crews needed to sustain a booming industry. Back then, it was nothing to pay someone $25 an hour just to sweep the floors.

Even when the sector was thriving and contracts were plentiful, Mr. Hicks was always confident he’d be able to find workers. It’s different now.

“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 says.

“I didn’t think we’d ever see it like this, but it’s definitely a thing.”

Mark Scholz, president and CEO of the Canadian Association of Energy Contractors, says the fragility of the energy sector over the past six or seven years has resulted in significant inconsistency of work across the board.

That tempted a lot of people to migrate to other industries, he says, where they have stable jobs with 40-hour work weeks.

They’re likely getting paid less than they would in the oil and gas sector, he says, “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 Petroleum Labour Market Information (PetroLMI) division of Energy Safety Canada tracks oil and gas employment data. The number of people working in the sector in July, 2021, increased by slightly more than 22 per cent over the previous year.

In July, 2021, alone, employment in the sector across Canada crept up by about 1.5 per cent. Alberta was close to double that growth, at 2.85 per cent, while Saskatchewan nudged upward by less than half a percent.

In its July report, PetroLMI said the low unemployment rate of 4.45 per cent across the country suggests the labour market remains tight, which could impede potential job growth and overall industry recovery.

Still, Mr. Scholz is seeing pockets of optimism for a strong long-term recovery. If and when that happens, he doesn’t think concerns about job consistency and stability will be as concerning to some workers.

But he also says there has been a shift in the industry. Younger workers want better work-life balance, and money holds a smaller place in the decision-making process about whether they’ll enter the energy sector at all.

He also worries about the impact of the language around the federal government’s planned Just Transition legislation, which would guide programs and funding to support workers and their communities in the transition to a low-carbon economy.

“We are hearing some of the issues about a newer generation looking at the industry and saying, ‘Well, gosh, is this a sunset industry?’ ” says Mr. Scholz.

“I think the industry needs to start thinking about other tools and ways of incentivizing and encouraging people to come into the industry.”

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