Reset the usual craziness and maybe we can attract more workers

There is an increasingly common thread I’m hearing from oilfield service companies: we are seeing the start of a labour shortage.

Talk to pretty much anyone in the service rig business, and you’ll hear it’s hard to find workers. But that extends to many other sectors as well. Almost universally, people are telling me about the large numbers of people who have left the oilpatch, followed by the statement, “And they’re not coming back.”

The oilpatch has seen downturns before, eventually followed by surges. And people have come back, usually for the high wages offered. But right now, no oil company or oilfield services company is really in a position to offer the big bucks again.

And therein lies the problem. People will work long, hard, crazy hours when there’s a big paycheque attached. But without that huge paycheque, is all the craziness really worth it?

One of the most brutally honest interviews I’ve done was with Kelly Lafrentz, when he and his wife Arlene sold off their equipment and shut down their trucking and rental businesses after 27 years. They got out during the height of the boom, in 2012. Back then, Kelly said, “The oilfield will be in this crisis for people until they get rid of the panic mentality. The rest of the world works five to six days a week, 10-hour days. On Saturday, they want to stay in bed with their wife.”

Kelly noted the younger generation willing to work 12 hour days, but doesn’t want to work 24/7. “The oilfield still doesn’t get it.

“It doesn’t look to me like we would get out of this labour situation anytime soon.

“The big players are the ones who don’t understand. We’ve worked for some great people, who give you two to four days notice. Scheduling can be done.

“The big machine has to start scheduling this as a regular job. They do in the U.S. They go home at the end of the day.”

Step forward to 2017, and I’ve had several conversations with oilfield services companies who are feeling the same frustration that Kelly was back then. They’re tired, bone tired, of the middle-of-the-night calls, carrying two cell phones and be expected to answer them 24/7. Their workers are feeling the same way. It’s hard to get people who are willing to go out at three in the morning. When there was big money involved, sure, people were more willing to do that. But for the leaner wages now on offer? Perhaps not so much.

A related common thread has been the desire for “slow and steady.” I heard that same phrase three times in one day, from different people. It’s clear there’s a desire for this.

This idea of ramping up activity all of a sudden, then, just as quickly, shutting down, plays havoc with staffing, never mind stress levels. Who wants that? And who’s willing to leave a steady-Eddie job, which may pay less, to go work for a few months and then get laid off again?

Our next generation of workers are the Millennials, who appear to be a different kettle of fish compared to anyone who has come before. Will they put up with the craziness of the patch? Is this shortage a direct reflection of that?

Perhaps the key to attracting new labour is to try to make this industry just a little closer to a normal 9 to 5 gig, with weekends off. Schedule things ahead of time, and eliminate the middle of the night callouts as much as possible. Yes, many aspects of the oilpatch will always be 24/7, i.e. an overfull tank alarm. But not everything truly needs to be. A more relaxed pace is attainable in many sectors. But that can only happen if the oil companies take the lead. Their shareholder may want the most efficient 24/7 operation possible, but how can it function if there’s no one to do the job?

I realize this is all likely a pipe dream. As one person told me, “That will never happen.” He was probably right.

But if we want to attract people to our way of life, maybe we have to make it a little more liveable.

 

Brian Zinchuk is editor of Pipeline News. He can be reached at brian.zinchuk@sasktel.net.

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