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Labour innovation required for health of oil sands: report

Hasan Jamali/Hasan Jamali/Associated Press

A looming labour crisis in the oil sands has produced a remarkable response among Canada's energy companies, some of which have pledged to halt construction over winter holidays and cap their work force.

But a new report suggests that, as retirements whittle away an already stretched job market, companies need to be more innovative if they are to manage the coming years, using technology like remote-controlled trucks and hiring people with unusual skills to tackle tough problems.

"Right now in terms of the need for people it's pretty intense. But go three or four years from now, it's going to be exceptionally intense," said Chris Lee, national energy and resources industry leader with Deloitte & Touche LLP, which published its report, "Gaining ground in the sands 2012," on Tuesday.

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Figuring out labour issues is "a short-term issue" that companies must deal with immediately, or risk facing the "same situation we were in five or six years ago, where it was every man for himself," Mr. Lee said.

Among Deloitte's suggestions: shared services. Today, for example, each oil sands company generates its own steam, which is needed at certain sites to melt the heavy, oily bitumen from the oil sands. But companies could move to a model where steam generation is outsourced to a central third party.

Such a concept could be challenged by the fact that, in the cold winters of north-eastern Alberta, steam often can't be moved over great distances.

But Deloitte suggests companies could benefit from other collaborative approaches as well.

For example, when it comes to safety training and environmental issues, industry could work together to "define, design and deliver a singular and shared contractor orientation that would meet everyone's needs and certify contractors at all relevant sites," the report suggests.

Perhaps more important are steps to reduce the work force. A projection by the Canadian Energy Research Institute estimates that, if all planned oil sands projects are built, the industry's worker needs will rise to 905,000 in 2035 from 75,000 today. That may be optimistic, since history has shown numerous oil sands plans that have been cancelled.

Yet it's clear that the needs are expected to be enormous. To counter that, Deloitte says companies should use remote sensing – typically aerial or satellite monitoring – or even remote-controlled trucks to free up "human capital for more challenging and value-added employment."

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Such moves could also help the oil patch diminish its accommodations arms race, which has seen the construction of ever-more luxurious – and ever-more expensive – worker camps designed as employee lures.

Deloitte also believes the oil patch needs to be smarter about who it hires, diversifying from the standard roster of engineers to people with different skills that may be able to provide new financial and environmental breakthroughs. It suggests looking to fields as varied as biomimicry, nanotechnology, remote robotics and dirigibles.

"As one industry leader put it to us recently in conversation, the idea is to put 10 oars in the water in the hopes one works out – where each oar, we would further argue, needs to come from wholly different designs, materials and possibly eras."

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