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University of Calgary student Jordan Meyer already has a full-time job with an oil company.Jeff McIntosh/The Globe and Mail

Jordan Meyer is a 23-year-old chemical engineering student at the University of Calgary. Still months away from graduation, he already has a plum job lined up as an exploitation engineer in Saskatchewan.

"Starting fourth year with a job … honestly, it's a huge weight off my back," Mr. Meyer said.

While Canada's youth unemployment rate has been hovering around 14 per cent for the past two years, petroleum and gas companies are snapping up engineers to work in the oil sands and energy sector.

Canada's oil and gas industry directly employed 186,635 workers in 2011, says a report published by the Petroleum Human Resources Council of Canada (PHRCC) in May of 2012. Approximately eight per cent of the industry's work force is expected to retire by 2015.

Even with the total number of workers in the oil and gas extraction sector in Canada in January down 16 per cent from a year earlier, this "big crew change" has put the energy sector on a hiring spree with not enough supply to meet the demand.

"The labour challenge is very real and will likely get worse before it gets better with a large demographic retiring in the next several years," said Travis Davies, spokesman for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP). "The growing labour shortage, particularly for skilled trades people, is an opportunity well worth considering by current and future job seekers."

The PHRCC report further stated the oil and gas industry will need to fill at least 9,500 job openings by 2015, but approximately 3,400 – or 36 per cent – of these openings may not be filled due to gaps in labour demand and supply.

"And the current phenomenon is chronic, not cyclical like past labour shortages," Mr. Davies said. "That means the door is open for long-term, secure, well-paying skilled trades such as electricians, welders, pipefitters, technicians and specialists."

Gillian McKercher, a student at U of C's Schulich's School of Engineering, worked a 16-month internship and received a job offer shortly thereafter.

"There are tons of opportunities and you don't even have to leave campus," she said. "The companies come here to recruit … I have friends in other disciplines who aren't able to find jobs and it's so hard."

The University of Calgary helped to place 174 engineering students – close to 40 per cent – in internships in the oil, gas and energy sector. Jack Gray, the director of the engineering career centre, says typically 50 to 60 per cent of their students receive an offer to return to that company.

Most of the jobs are in the Calgary area with another 10 per cent at various locations around Alberta, such as Fort McMurray.

CAPP says the industry needs to expand its ability to recruit and retain Canadian workers, including women, minorities, aboriginals and older workers.

"After focusing on Canada first, attracting workers from the United States and other countries under temporary foreign worker and immigration programs is also part of the solution," Mr. Davies said. "Recent initiatives by the federal government to make these processes work better are a welcome step in the right direction."

The PHRCC also made several recommendations in its report, including retaining skilled workers during economic or seasonal slowdowns and investing in attraction-and-retention practices for employees, such as mentorship and internal work-force training programs.

The council also recommended reaching out to students as young as kindergarten to Grade 12 as well as in northern and remote communities on future job possibilities in the industry.

In anticipation of the "big crew change," oil company Cenovus Energy Inc. is just one of the many companies that have invested millions of dollars in postsecondary education and scholarships in recent years.

In May, Cenovus donated $3-million toward the construction of a new trades and technology complex at SAIT Polytechnic in Calgary and to triple the number of power engineering graduates by 2016. A few months later, the company donated $1.2-million to NAIT Polytechnic, which increased its student intake quota for the power engineering program by 50 per cent to 90 students last year.

Most recently, Cenovus made a gift of $1.5-million to Lakeland College for the construction of a petroleum centre at the Lloydminister campus and for scholarships.

Jessica Wilkinson, a spokeswoman for Cenovus, said the company wants to double its staff to 7,000 by 2021.

"We're a young organization … the average age of our employees is around 41, but even without the retirement factor, we still have a big hiring plans," she said.

She said the company has an active recruitment team that hires from its summer and year-long internship programs, but also offers employees further training based on their long-term interests in managerial or technical streams. "It's not just about recruitment; it's about retention as well."

In a 2011 column in Journal of Petroleum Technology magazine, Alain Labastie, then-president of the Society of Professional Engineers, wrote that while hiring young people is "good news," there might be challenges associated with it.

"If we look at the global drilling activity in the past 20 years, we can clearly see a correlation between non-productive time and years of experience [average] of the drilling crews; staff with less experience makes more mistakes and lose more time," he said.

Half of the world's energy companies say they will delay projects if they can't get the right people, according to a 2011 Schlumberger Business Consulting survey of 37 global firms.

"Unfortunately, I have the impression that, in our companies, mentoring generally is poorly or not at all organized, and even not recognized," Mr. Labastie wrote, putting the blame on a heavy workload and time-sensitive work.