2 years without a job: Calgary in the downturn

Calgary's unemployment rate is the highest in the country, with no light at the end of the tunnel. For those who have run through their severance and extended EI, it's all about lowered expectations.

Severance is gone, EI has run out, and still no job on the horizon

After 25 years as a geoscientist, Andy Williams was one of the first to be laid-off in the oilpatch turndown. He's been out of work for two years. (Tracy Johnson/CBC)

This story was originally published Sept. 20.

Two years ago, Andy Williams lost his job as a geoscientist with StatOil in Calgary

With 25 years in the industry, he was one of many scientists and other professionals who created the oilsands industry as we know it — an industry that fuelled Alberta and Canada's economy over the past decade and is now on its heels. His profession in particular has been decimated in the oil downturn.

This week Williams starts a job at Mountain Equipment Co-op.

People saying, "I won't take less than 60." I'm like,"Are you serious? Take 55 and take the damn job."- Sharlene Massie, About Staffing

That, in a nutshell, is Calgary's job market right now.

For decades, the energy sector has provided interesting, well-paid work for professionals like Williams, who studies the physical earth looking for oil deposits, for tradespeople who built the infrastructure of the industry, and for office staff who held everything together. 

Now, two years into the slowdown, Calgary's unemployment rate sits at nine per cent, and there are 42,000 more people out of work than there were the day that Williams lost his job. The number of Calgarians receiving unemployment benefits peaked in June 2016, in part because those benefits have started to run out, even for those who qualified for extended benefits. And there are few signs of improvement.

Oilsands an 'anchor' on the resumé

"Nowadays, oilsands is a huge anchor on anyone's resumé," said Williams. "There are no oilsands projects that are looking to do anything that requires a geoscientist. So you get classified as not very relevant right now."

Williams has run through his severance, and he didn't qualify for extended employment insurance benefits because he was laid off too early in the cycle.

He said that he has been banging his head against the wall looking for work and will continue to do so, while manning the floor at Mountain Equipment Co-op over the holidays.

'People out of work for 2 years'

Headhunters at staffing firms are caught in a strange crosscurrent; they are busy helping companies carry out layoffs, and have huge rosters of clients who are now looking for work.

"When I look at the cross-section of the clients … I'm working with more people that are more than a year into their search than I ever have in my career," said Richard Bucher, a senior consultant with Right Management.

"And more people that are now past two years in their campaign than I ever have before. Historically I've never seen anybody out of work for two years."

Gord Dugan was introduced to Bucher when he was laid off from Husky last year. As part of his severance, Dugan was given three months of help from Bucher and Right Management in order to help him find work. A year and a half later, he is still looking and attending weekly networking session at Right's offices.

Dugan, who worked in information security and has applied for hundreds of jobs over the past year and a half, said that he is turning away from the energy sector.

"There's a fundamental shift happening in energy, it's structural, so no, the oilpatch is no longer the target."

Not willing to take just any job

On the other side of the job equation, Sharlene Massie runs About Staffing in Calgary.

She fills both permanent and temporary jobs across a range of fields from skilled trades to information technology.

"Whenever we put up a posting now for a job, regardless of what the job is, we are getting a thousand applicants in the first day and then it goes from there," said Massie.

The boom is so hard to resist.The salaries are considerably higher, the work is incredibly interesting, when things aregung-hoand moving aheadit's quite exciting.- Ryan Chatfield

Massie said that her company has between 15 and 25 postings for permanent staff at any given time, compared with approximately 100 before the market crashed.

"We had a really good [executive assistant] job that was for a big company, run by a pension fund, paid 80K a year, wicked benefits, downtown, great company, a demanding schedule. The competition was ridiculous," said Massie.

But there are still people who have not adjusted their expectations.

"I had another one that's similar, it pays 55K a year, it's a nice company, Alberta-based, family-run business. It was tough to sell. People were saying, 'I won't take less than 60.' I'm like, 'Are you serious? Take 55 and take the damn job.'"

Ryan Chatfield lost his job at an engineering and consulting firm a year ago. He's gone back to school. (Tracy Johnson/CBC)

Leaving the oilpatch behind

Ryan Chatfield is earlier in his career than either Dugan or Williams. In his mid-30s, he spent eight years working for a consulting engineering firm and was laid off almost exactly one year ago.

He found some temporary work, collected EI for a time and decided to go back to school. He's studying civil engineering technology, but is hoping to work for a municipality. 

What he's not intending to do is go back to the oilpatch.

"I'm not sure what it looks like, even five years out," said Chatfield. "People that I respect are leaving the country to get project management jobs in other countries because they don't have any faith in Alberta's economy to return to what it was before."

Even if oil prices come roaring back, Chatfield isn't inclined to get back in the business.

"The boom is so hard to resist. The salaries are considerably higher, the work is incredibly interesting, when things are gung-ho and moving ahead it's quite exciting.

"But the other side is that I lived for over a year, seeing staff reductions at my employer and it's really stressful, when you're the person that's left over."
Thousands of people showed up at a job fair for employment at the new terminal set to open at Calgary's airport. (Stephanie Wiebe/CBC)

No light at the end of the tunnel yet

Not everyone has the option of switching careers. Williams, with his very specific training in geoscience, said he's struggling with crossing over.

"How does one transition and what are transferable skills? I definitely struggle with that. And even if we can find all these transferable skills, how do you present yourself to a prospective employer: 'I'm transferring, so I'm not as talented as the other people you're looking at, but I'd still like to work for you.'"

Williams and Dugan both know that the price of oil is outside Canada's control, but suggest a pipeline to one of the coasts is not, and would be a stabilizing factor for the industry.

Even with that though, the wait for a comeback could be long.

Bucher said that companies are planning more layoffs through the end of the year, although fewer than in 2015.

"There are some major oil and gas companies that have 900 fewer people on their team than a year ago. The question becomes how many more people can they let go and remain an entity.

"But what is happening in the commodity market to cause oil prices to go up? I think the answer is nothing. So this is going to continue until some mystical point in the future when things turn around."