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Rig workers at Cenovus's Foster Creek operation in AlbertaKevin Van Paassen

An aging work force and a booming energy sector are going to pose a serious challenge for oil and gas companies looking for workers over the next few years, a new report says.

The Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada says the industry will have to fill at least 9,500 jobs by 2015.

"We have moved from a world in which these work-force shortages were cyclical to where we think they're chronic, so this is an issue we're going to have with us for a long time and we're going to have to work through for a long time," said Tom Huffaker, vice-president for policy and environment at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

The report says the energy industry is at risk of losing about three per cent of its work force overall because of persistently low natural gas prices. But it says growth in certain operations and age-related attrition will offset any job losses and lead to increased hiring needs.

"We had a bit of a reprieve with the downturn in that lots of people postponed their retirement plans," explained Cheryl Knight, executive director and CEO of the petroleum council.

"Age is a factor that you just can't tinker with too easily and we've seen how retirement rates are meeting what we would expect, so it is serious. It's a loss of skilled and experienced workers and you just can't replace that seasoned person with someone fresh out of school."

The outlook projects employment in Alberta's oil sands to jump by 29 per cent over 2011 levels, or roughly 5,850 jobs. The pipeline sector will add about 530 jobs over the same time period.

The president of the Petroleum Services Association of Canada says many companies still haven't recovered from the 15,000 layoffs that occurred during the economic downturn in 2008 and 2009. "Simply put, there's going to be no reprieve from the current hiring challenge in the oil and gas services," said Mark Salkeld.

"We'll need to hire more than 5,000 new workers by 2015. It's a vibrant and very exciting industry and we've had challenges before and we'll overcome them again."

Ms. Knight said another hurdle to finding skilled workers is competition from the United States, South America and New Zealand. "They've launched concerted recruitment efforts here quite recently and that is quite a concern to us," she said. "Oil and gas workers and professionals in Canada are regarded as being very highly trained and operating in a highly safe and efficient environmental environment so we're challenged."

The report focused on labour demand projections for 38 core occupations in the oil and gas industry within four industry sectors: exploration and production, oil sands, oil and gas services and pipeline.

The Canadian Press