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Time to Man Up

Thursday, 01 Dec 2011

(published in Oilweek) This winter, the heaviest workload will fall not to the leasesite or wellsite. Rather, in the months ahead, personnel departments will shoulder the weightiest task: staffing rigs.

The shortage of skilled labour has been on industry’s radar for the last decade. It’s hardly a ‘new’ hot topic, but, as can happen, a long-present problem can get sudden urgent play when it seeps into public discourse. Recent government policy discussion and media coverage have turned to the issue of skills shortages, and the statistics are dire enough to capture the public’s attention. The Petroleum Human Resources Sector Council has forecast that, in oil and gas, the services sector alone could need as many as 72 000 additional workers between now and 2020.

The Sector Council’s assessment is a forecast. However, drilling and service rigs already feel this shortage keenly. This winter, the heaviest workload will fall not to the leasesite or wellsite. Rather, in the months ahead, personnel departments will shoulder the weightiest task: staffing rigs.

This year’s manpower challenge is not the usual winter ramp-up. In a typical winter ramp-up, rigs draw in vast numbers of new hires to work entry-level crew positions for the frantic first quarter. The task presents a challenge every year, but what contractors saw through 2011’s first quarter and will see again in the coming first quarter is a different manpower issue.

Industry is short derrickhands. That’s the consistent response from drilling and service rig contractors. It’s the fall-out from the last economic downturn when industry lost thousands of employees to other career paths.

The crew’s derrickhand is not an entry-level position. Derrickhands bring to the jobsite knowledge that comes with several years of experience. They’re the industry employees who are readying to step into the crew’s senior position, the driller. And as skilled experienced crewmembers, they are critical in helping junior crewmembers learn the ropes. A rig fleet that suffers a shortage of derrickhands faces a skills shortage.

This winter, like last winter, rig contractors will struggle, and their struggles will be felt across the industry. Without enough senior crewmembers in the sector, rigs will shut down when crews need time off. It’s a short term solution to the manpower gap that will hit the bottom line for many companies, contractors and their clients alike.

The longer term solution requires training up a new workforce, a momentous task. That workload is equal parts recruitment and retention.

To help address the recruitment piece, CAODC is retooling its online presence. RigTech.ca has been since 2006 an online resource for future and current rig employees. The site was originally commissioned to help drilling rig employees access information about the Rig Technician trade. It also offered, as a secondary function, general employment information for job seekers who would be new to rig work.

This online resource will undergo big changes. CAODC is overhauling RigTech.ca, scheduled for completion mid-December. CAODC is also launching November 8 a second site, one that is specific to service rig career paths, called www.ServiceRigDrive.ca.

The aim of both sites is to help industry rebuild the workforce smarter by better capturing the imagination of a new pool of applicants. Since the launch of RigTech.ca, CAODC has noticed that a good portion of interested job seekers struggle to present themselves as a good fit for a rig job.  Some job seekers misunderstand that they need a vehicle to get to the remote locations of a drilling site. Others don’t realise that for service rig work, a full class five license with a clean driver abstract is a critical entry level requirement.  

The two new sites will offer detailed information, information that gives individuals clear next steps for preparing an application and contacting industry.  

The retention part of the task is not as straight forward. Oil and gas is a volatile industry, and in western Canada, spring break-up adds to the uneven activity. For rig crews, this means opportunity in the winter and uncertainty through the rest of the year. It’s a scenario that works against efforts to improve employee retention.

There is something to be said for the robust activity industry saw between 2003 and 2006: with short spring break-ups and steady demand for rig employees, the industry’s skilled workforce was large enough to drill a record-breaking 22 000 wells in 2006.  Today, industry is not staffed to break any activity records, regardless of the number of rigs in the fleet or the strength of market demand.

The rig employee who is gaining experience and seniority is a critical industry resource. And the challenge posed by this missing segment of the workforce will not be overcome in short order. Rigs are the recruiting ground for sectors that rely on the hands-on experience of a driller.

Undoubtedly, the wider industry will notice today’s missing derrickhand for years to come.

Published in Oilweek (“Association’s Corner”)
December 2011