A shortage of skilled workers for an expanding number of rigs will continue to hamper growth in Western Canada's oil drilling industry, according to an industry forecast. (Larry MacDougal/Canadian Press)

Growth in the oil drilling industry will continue to be hampered by a shortage of skilled workers needed for an expanding fleet of rigs, the Canadian Association of Oilwell Drilling Contractors said Tuesday in its latest forecast.

Drilling is expected to increase only marginally next year despite strong oil prices, rising one per cent year-over-year — virtually the same as conditions in 2011, the association said.

"The greatest limiting factor when examining overall utilization rates will be the shortage of skilled rig workers," the group said in a statement.

"[The] industry suffered a great loss of skills and knowledge during the downturn of 2009 and it has struggled to attract these experienced workers back."

Adding to the difficulty posed by a weakened workforce, the oil drillers' group said it is also seeing a trend in which many skilled general workers are pursuing specialized positions in directional drilling.

Though it noted that there are new workers arriving in the oilpatch in "encouraging" numbers, "it will take time to develop their skills."

The association said it expects the number of rigs at work in Western Canada's oilfields to rise by 15 in the first quarter, reaching a total of 840 by the end of 2012. The number of oil and gas wells operating during the year is forecast to remain stable at 12,672.

"With the increasing complexity of the wells and the associated time to drill them, as well as shortage of experienced crews, the association does not anticipate a significant increase in the well count for 2012."

The driller's group said it now expects 2011 to have seen 55 per cent rig utilization, with an average of 443 rigs working about 39,767 days and a well count around 12,555.