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Economy Unemployed oil workers struggle to find new jobs

Crystal Schick CALGARY, AB -- Curtis Harding, a certified equine massage therapist (CEMT) and vertebra realignment (VR) of Equine Maintenance Solutions, who specializes in equine motion and emotion, stands in a field with 21-year-old quarter horse, Cochise, at NG Ranch in Langdon, on May 7, 2016. -- (Crystal Schick for The Globe and Mail)

Crystal Schick/The Globe and Mail

This is part of an occasional series on Canada's economy and its shift away from resources.

When Curtis Harding had trouble finding another contract job in the energy sector late last year, he decided to embark on a new career – as a horse masseuse and chiropractor.

"I applied to so many jobs and didn't hear back. I thought 'what can I do? I can't just sit at home and keep on applying,'" said Mr. Harding, an experienced pipe fitter and consultant who had applied for about 300 jobs in his field.

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A long-time horse lover and owner, Mr. Harding dipped into his savings for the training. He travelled from his home in Bassano, Alta., to Edmonton and then Kamloops to obtain his equine-therapy qualifications.

"I had horses all my life and I hired massage therapists and chiropractors to work on my horses," he said. "I went online on Facebook and said, 'Here's what I am going to do,' and everyone was pretty gung-ho."

The 44-year-old Mr. Harding, who had worked in the oil industry for nearly three decades, is now building up his new client base. He is one of thousands of unemployed energy workers whose careers are in flux since oil prices plunged to around $45 (U.S.) a barrel from $100 in mid-2014. Many don't know where to seek help or retraining. Others are guessing what route to take and are taking out loans or using their savings to retrain in a new field.

The federal government is on track to spend $3.89-billion (Canadian) for skills and jobs training this year, up from $3.38-billion in the previous year. More than half of those funds are from employee and employer contributions to employment insurance. Yet, there is very little follow-up to see which methods are the most effective or if the retraining has helped unemployed people find and keep their new jobs.

"We really do not have a handle of what's working or not," said Sarah Anson-Cartwright, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce's director of skills and immigration policy. "They are never fully evaluated. That is something that would be valuable if we want to get a handle on how to get people back to work as quickly as possible," she said.

If there was ever a time to know what type of training is effective in Canada, it is now. The energy sector was already undergoing a major restructuring before wildfires in Fort McMurray temporarily shut down oil production and forced more than 80,000 people out of the area. Scores of high-paying positions have been eliminated in the industry as well as in other parts of the economy. Thousands of unemployed workers with energy-related experience have flooded the market, sending Alberta's unemployment rate to its highest level since the early 1980s recession.

The province's labour market is showing further signs of strain. Wages are declining and data show that more Albertans had to take part-time jobs because they could not find full-time employment. The involuntary part-time rate has soared, doubling for older workers since September, 2014, according to Statistics Canada.

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What made it even harder for people such as Mr. Harding is that no one wants to hire former oil and gas workers.

Sharlene Massie, the owner of an Alberta employment agency, said employers don't want to invest in someone's career change only to have them leave if and when the industry recovers. "They are saying specifically 'don't send me someone from oil and gas,'" she said.

Ottawa is under pressure to help laid-off oil workers. In its first budget in March, the federal Liberal government topped up EI benefits for some unemployed people and has set aside an additional $125-million for jobs retraining.

But the haphazard training assessments make it difficult for policy makers to know where to funnel taxpayer funds. Of the $3.89-billion skills and jobs training budget, more than half is going to the provinces and territories to operate their own programs. The result? Every region has their own method for evaluating whether a program works. For example: Ontario tracks what happens to some of their trainees. Alberta does not. The federal agency in charge of training, Employment and Social Development Canada, says it is the provinces' and territories' responsibility.

"Training is a murky area of data in Canada," said Don Drummond, a well-known economist. "Governments track how much is spent on training but rarely put in place mechanisms to track what happens to people afterward. Did they get jobs? At what pay? Did they keep the jobs?" he said.

Also, Canada's labour market data are spotty, another critical piece of the puzzle that would help policy makers and job seekers. The government collects data on joblessness and reports these findings in its monthly Labour Force Survey. But unlike the United States, Canada does not track what happens to people after they lose their job. Statistics Canada's only survey on displaced workers was conducted once and that was in 1986, according to the agency.

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Statscan recently unveiled a new in-depth survey on job vacancies last year. The problem is that the survey is so new, the data cannot be put into context.

"What is a 'normal' vacancy rate? What signifies a tight labour market? Haven't a clue," said Mr. Drummond, who chaired a government-funded panel to improve Canada's labour data. "It will take years before we get a feel for such things. That is the cost for not having consistent surveys over time. But still, much better late than never," he said.

Take the manufacturing sector for example. More than 400,000 factory jobs vanished during the 2008-09 financial crisis. No one really knows what happened to those workers.

The Canadian Auto Workers union, which has since become Unifor, funded one study to find out what happened to its workers. It tracked laid-off auto workers from three plants in Southern Ontario. It found that half secured new employment six months after their plant was closed. Many took on multiple jobs and most people reported a significant drop in wages. The CAW study found that retraining was helpful, with 60 per cent finding work related to their training.

Ontario – which bore the brunt of the manufacturing job losses – created a program at the depths of the Great Recession to help unemployed people retrain in a new field. The program, called Second Career, gives unemployed people up to $28,000 to help with tuition and other training-related expenses. It is one of the few programs that follows up with people after training is completed. The province's data show that 73 per cent of Second Career trainees found work in their field a year after completing training, although the data do not provide reasons why the rest did not find jobs or whether trainees were earning similar wages to their previous manufacturing position.

Jim Stanford, former chief economist with the country's largest auto workers' union, said it was shameful so little has been done to track displaced workers.

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"They assume there's a great big pool of workers out there and a displaced worker goes into the market and waits for someone to snatch them. It is an absolutely wrong idea of how job search and recruitment happens," he said. "We have just kind of thrown them to their own devices and said good luck."

One of those displaced workers is 63-year-old Wayne Myers. In November, he lost his job managing a roving trailer of equipment supplies for oil sands workers in northern Alberta. After applying for jobs in Alberta and Ontario, he decided to change his occupation. Mr. Myers did some career testing and discovered he was a natural at customer service and was a good fit for hotel management.

"I just figured there are a lot of hotels that need some extra help, even as a doorman, just to learn the business," he said.

Mr. Myers is now studying hotel management online and looking for a place to live in the Niagara region before he embarks on another job search in his new field.

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