Growing grey wave set to crash on Alberta trades

With thousands of tradespeople set to retire in less than a decade, Alberta's energy sector could soon face new shortages for skilled labour, reigniting calls for more people to enlist in the trades to fill the future gap.

Students urged to fill gap expected to be left by thousands of retiring baby boomers

Alberta's oilpatch will need more people to enter the trades in the coming years to fill the gap left by a wave of retiring baby boomers. (Norm Betts/Bloomberg)

With the retirement of thousands of tradespeople looming through the middle of the next decade, Alberta's oil and gas sector could soon face new shortages for skilled labour, reigniting calls for more people to enlist in the trades to help fill the future gap.

Jim Carter, a former president of Syncrude and advocate for trades education, says a rising tide of baby boomers nearing retirement age is one reason industry needs more people to enter the skilled trades.

The downturn also may have scared off some prospective students from the energy industry, which would aggravate the situation.

"When we're in these downturns, we kind of tend to think that there aren't going to be any job opportunities because everything slowed down," said Carter, board chair of CAREERS: The Next Generation, a group funded by government and industry to raise awareness about opportunities in trades and other occupations.

"What we keep forgetting is every year that goes by, that workforce is getting a year older and a year closer to retirement, and so when you've got a bit of a bulge, like we had with the baby boomers coming through ... you're going to see that sort of unfolding over the course of the next five years.

"That's going to create opportunities for young people."

The oilpatch won't be the only sector of the economy needing more tradespeople. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

The call for students to enter the trades may sound familiar.

More than a decade ago, a massive construction boom across the province and in the oilsands fired up huge demand for more young people to explore careers such as pipefitter and electrician.

But a few years later, thousands of jobs were lost in the wake of the 2014 oil price crash that saw companies slash positions as they sought new efficiencies and cut costs.

Carter said that with major investments being made in the oilsands in recent years, there will be demand for the skilled labour who can maintain those facilities during their operation over several decades.

Suncor's Fort Hills oilsands mining facility, for example, has an expected 50-year lifespan.

"There's a lot of work to be done to maintain those facilities," Carter said.

"While we've been in this downturn for the last two or three years, really since 2014 when crude oil prices plummeted, we've all kind of gone to sleep on the fact that the demographics have been shifting."

He said it's not just the energy sector that will need tradespeople in the years ahead, either.

Indeed, though Alberta's workforce is relatively young, it is aging.

According to provincial statistics, Albertans aged 55 to 64 made up 15 per cent of Alberta's working-age population in 2016, compared to 12 per cent in 2006. 

Alberta's Department of Labour anticipates more than 3,000 workers will retire in the trades, transport and equipment operators, and related occupations each year from 2016 to 2025. 

'We have to rethink the way educate people, and it's not just about computer engineering, it's also about trades,' says Benjamin Tal, deputy chief economist at CIBC World Markets. (CIBC )

"In terms of the grey wave that's coming — or the grey wave that may be upon us — there's definitely that demographic shift that is underway," said Jim Szautner, dean of the School of Manufacturing and Automation at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology.

"That is absolutely going to open up a significant amount of opportunity for people who want to get into the trades and want to get into those kinds of careers."

But filling those trades jobs won't be easy, and isn't Alberta's struggle alone.

It's a challenge across North America, said Benjamin Tal, deputy chief economist of CIBC World Markets.

"Clearly, it's everywhere — we have a mismatch in the labour market," Tal said. 

"We have companies desperately looking for people, not only PhDs and computer engineers, but plumbers and electricians. And we cannot find them. This mismatch is why we have a labour market that is not functioning."

He said many people are getting degrees for jobs that the labour market doesn't need. He believes Canada should follow the lead of countries like Germany and Sweden where students get degrees and are certified in a trade.

"The labour market is changing at the speed of light and the education system is behaving like nothing happened," he said. "We have to re-think the way educate people and it's not just about computer engineering, it's also about trades."

Tal said the lack of qualified labour is a significant issue, one that limits the potential economic growth.

"This is a major issue that affects all of us," he said.


Tony Seskus

Senior Producer Western Digital Business Unit

Tony Seskus is senior producer with CBC's Western Business unit in Calgary. He's written for newspapers and wire services for more than 25 years on three continents. In Calgary, Tony has reported on the energy sector and federal politics.