Edmonton

Oilpatch workers forced to adapt in post-recession Alberta

Josh Hibbert worked the rigs in Fort McMurray’s oilpatch for years but when the economy crashed in 2008, he — like thousands of abruptly unemployed Albertans — was forced to adapt.

'I had to get into a new career path to get on with life and make myself employable'

After a calamitous drop in oil prices in 2015, nearly 39,000 oilpatch jobs were lost in Alberta between August 2014 and October 2016. (Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg)

Josh Hibbert worked the rigs in Fort McMurray's oilpatch for years but when the economy crashed in 2008, he — like thousands of abruptly unemployed oil and gas workers — was forced to adapt.

"It all went downhill after the 2008 economy crash, so going into 2009 that was a pretty dead industry," Hibbert, 36, recalled in an interview Thursday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"Don't get me wrong, I loved the oilpatch. I loved the rigs, but when there is no work, your life changes. You go from expecting a certain quality of life to 'Now you've got to find something else.' "  

In the decade that followed, Hibbert edged his way back into the beleaguered job market and is working on his second trade ticket at NAIT.

He landed an apprenticeship, got his red seal in welding and is set to enter his third year of boilermaker training.

"I had to adapt," Hibbert said. "I had to get into a new career path to get on with life and make myself employable in an area that had a demand."

Hibbert's story isn't unique, said Malcolm Haines, dean of NAIT's school of skilled trades. 

After a calamitous drop in oil prices in 2015, nearly 39,000 oil and gas jobs were lost in Alberta between August 2014 and October 2016, according to Statistics Canada. 

Despite a steady rebound, countless Alberta workers are seeking out new opportunities, Haines said.

Qualified oil and gas workers such as boilermakers, mechanics and pipefitters are coming back to school in droves to expand their training.

"We see apprentices, certainly in trades that are related to other trades, they're taking this opportunity to dual-ticket themselves," Haines said. 

"They're still working around the industries that they came from, but they're in different roles. They're looking to move around and maybe get some better secure employment in those areas."

'Trades have changed so much'

But not everyone is flocking back to the oilpatch. 

Many of the jobs lost are gone for good or have become unrecognizable post-recession, as the industry cuts costs and relies more on automation.

"Trades have changed so much over the years as far as the technological requirements," Haines said.

"It's not the trades of 10, 15 or 20 years ago where it was all just on the tools and everything was done by feel. There is so much technology involved."

For his part, Hibbert has no regrets about going back to school. With his new training, he feels  better prepared to survive another bust.

While there are jobs to be found in the oilpatch, Hibbert is less willing to cope with the swings in employment.

"The rigs started to pick up again so I think guys are working them again … but that was a long time for that to be on the down and out," he said. "Now that I'm with the boilermakers, we do maintenance on refineries.

"It doesn't matter how bad the economy gets, they still want to make money on the things that they have, there is still work."