Demand for workers increasing in Canada’s pipeline industry

Image: TransCanada

Donny van Dyk first met with his future employer Enbridge when he was chief administrative officer for the district municipality of New Hazleton, B.C. That was when the company was advancing its Northern Gateway Pipeline proposal to connect Alberta’s bitumen to tidewater in Kitimat, B.C.

In meetings between Enbridge and the municipality, Enbridge got a sense of van Dyk’s ability to engage in meaningful dialogue both in the boardroom and in the community. So, in 2013, when it needed a manager of coastal Aboriginal and community relations, it offered van Dyk the position.

With Enbridge, van Dyk led a campaign that knocked on a couple thousand doors. The residents of Kitimat eventually voted against the multi-billion-dollar Northern Gateway project, but Enbridge retained van Dyk and made him manager of B.C. community relations in Prince George and, later, added to his responsibilities as manager of corporate services.

Today he works in Enbridge’s Calgary head office as government affairs for B.C., Saskatchewan and Manitoba, working on the Line 3 Replacement Project and major Enbridge expansions.

“I’m really proud that at Enbridge I’ve had the opportunity to work on so many major projects,” van Dyk says. “They’re all really large projects. They’re unique and exciting.”

Van Dyk’s unfolding career with Enbridge represents one of the many career pathways that exist in today’s pipeline industry. Keeping oil and gas flowing efficiently and safely in this high-tech industry requires a broad range of professional, technical and skilled trades skillsets. The sector attracts people with strong leadership qualities, high initiative, exceptional technical and analytical and interpersonal capabilities.

A rapidly expanding area of work in pipelining is information systems and automation as the industry embraces digitization. But the demand for other engineering and technical roles, the gamut of skills needed for ongoing operations and workers for new construction projects is expected to grow over the next decade, potentially creating a labour shortage, according to recent study by the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association Foundation.

Demand for workers increasing

A key finding of the 105-page CEPA Foundation Industry-wide Pipeline Workers Supply and Demand Outlook to 2025 is that the demand for critical roles in pipeline operations, construction and maintenance is expected to ramp up significantly in 2019 towards a peak in 2021.

Critical occupations include welders and related machine operators, heavy equipment operators (except crane) and construction trades and labourers. By 2021, this group is expected to make up over 66 per cent of the critical occupation demand.

The strongest demand for pipeline workers will be in Alberta, Ontario and British Columbia, with a significant spike in demand in British Columbia, starting in 2019 and continue until 2022.

In 2023, demand for critical occupations is expected to shift to the Northwest Territories as a result of a major proposed pipeline project in that region.

By 2025, pipeline construction in Canada is expected to wind down, easing the strain on human resources, but maintenance and operations of this infrastructure will continue to be a major source of employment.

On the supply side, a number of trends could lead to pipeline worker shortages in the next decade. A wave of retirements of the baby boom generation is one of the risks. Along with that comes the potential loss of deep industry knowledge and expertise.

Another challenge are recent oil and gas layoffs. The collapse of oil prices and the protracted downturn prompted many out-of-province workers to return home. Some of these people have found work in different industries and will choose to stay where they are.

Technical and professional roles

Sourcing skilled labour for any oil and gas expansion has historically been a challenge in western Canada, whether it’s oilsands, resource plays or pipeline. Beyond boots in the field, pipeline industry expansion will also need a wide variety of technical, administrative and professional people. But there is also expected to be a better supply of these white-collar workers.

The supply of biological technologists and technicians, civil engineering technologists and technicians, software engineers and designers, for example, will grow by over 65 per cent over the next decade. This is higher than the expected supply of construction trades helpers and labourers, which will grew at about 55 per cent. The growth in some professional skillsets—such as economists and economic policy researchers and analysts—is even higher, at more than 200 per cent.

“But even with the projected growth for these roles, it is still anticipated that demand will far exceed this projected supply,” the study states. “The overall labour gap in the pipeline industry widens significantly in 2019 as a result of anticipated project development during this time, and this gap carries forward through to 2023.”

Recommendations

To narrow the pipeline worker supply/demand gap, the CEPA Foundation report makes a number of recommendations:

  • Industry needs to engage and acquire talent for critical occupations from under-utilized labour supply sources, including Aboriginal communities;
  • Companies should also build recruitment relationships with more universities;
  • Relevant skills, aptitude and interest levels should be identified in the immigration community;
  • A closer cooperation between industry and the federal and provincial governments could lead to better awareness of occupations in demand and introduce opportunities for training in the junior and high schools; and
  • Industry should also build formal succession and knowledge management plans to proactively address upcoming retirements.
Uncertainty

With about 120,000 kilometres of oil and gas pipelines in Canada, pipelines contribute $12 billion to Canada’s economy each year and employ more than 350,000 direct and indirect jobs. As construction on the backlog of needed pipelines gets underway, those numbers are set to grow.

But building pipelines in Canada is demonstrably not easy. The halt in construction on the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project is the latest installment in Canada’s troubled efforts to gain overseas markets for its oil.

In the last decade pipeline construction has become politicized by the debate over climate change and fossil fuels usage. The resulting lack of market access has pushed Canadian crude prices to record lows relative to U.S. crude in October, as additional production from new oilsands projects met with insufficient pipeline takeaway capacity and reduced capacity at American refineries.

“The market speaks for itself,” says CEPA president Patrick Smyth. “We’re continuing to increase production and, in order for Canada to maximize the value out of that, we need to get to new markets. The only way to do that is to build new pipelines.”

Natural gas pipelines have largely avoided the opposition facing oil pipelines. Still, access to Asian markets requires costly LNG export infrastructure. That investment, until recently, wasn’t forthcoming.

And the federal government has now introduced Bill C-69 to replace the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, 2012, which will make new projects even more challenging. Bill C-69 broadens the scope of the assessment process and adds enhanced consultation with affected groups, particularly Indigenous groups.

So while new pipelines are desperately needed, when shovels will actually break ground on new pipeline projects is uncertain. There are positive signs: LNG Canada’s final investment decision in October launched construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline project, and the Trans Mountain project still may get back on track after additional consultations are completed.