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Why Are Young Workers Shunning the Oilsands?

Millennials more likely to view industry as outdated and polluting.

Geoff Dembicki 23 Mar

Geoff Dembicki reports on energy and climate change for The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

Funding for this article was partially provided by the Climate Justice Project of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, with support from the Fossil Fuel Development Mitigation Fund of Tides Canada Foundation.

Extracting oil and gas from the ground is complicated work. It requires a huge amount of technical expertise, especially in places like northern Alberta, where temperatures can plunge to minus 50 degrees. Which is why the professionals who work in Canada's oil and gas sector -- people with titles like exploration geologist, reservoir engineer and rotating equipment specialist -- often earn six-figure salaries. But an annual survey of the oil and gas workforce has revealed a surprising trend.

More than one-third of those professionals in Canada are Baby Boomers. And as they approach retirement, not enough young people are entering the sector to replace them. "The oil and gas industry... used to be the place to go to have a great career that could take you all over the world doing exciting things," said Jim Fearon, vice-president at the Canadian division of Hays, a recruitment firm that each year releases a report tracking the salary levels and demographics of oil and gas professionals across the world. 

Such professionals can still travel far and wide to work on multi-billion dollar projects. That hasn't changed. But young people's perceptions of the oil and gas sector have -- and in few places more so than Canada. Millennials make up less than one-fifth of the country's professional oil and gas workforce, figures from the 2015 Salary Guide suggest, while the remainder are above the age of 35.

"Worldwide, it's actually the complete opposite," Fearon explained. Looking at the global average, more than one-third of oil and gas professionals are between 18 and 34 years of age.

So why are Canada's young workers shunning careers in oil and gas? Years of public polling research in both the U.S. and Canada suggest that increasing numbers of Millennials now see the industry as outdated and polluting. This might not seem like a primary concern to the companies now losing billions of dollars from plunging oil prices. But Fearon warned a dwindling workforce could ultimately limit the sector's growth. "If you can't staff [oil and gas] projects," he said. "You simply can't move them forward."

'Underwhelming' reputation

The shortage of young workers faced by Canada's oil and gas sector seems to violate basic laws of supply and demand. Many Millennials, after all, are struggling to find decent entry-level jobs. And the oil and gas sector offers some of the highest-paying work in the country. Yet a survey of Canadians commissioned by the publication Alberta Oil recently suggested only 46 per cent of Millennials consider working in the energy sector to be desirable, compared to 66 per cent of people above 65.

"The energy sector's underwhelming reputation in some quarters of the country is making it more difficult to recruit people," an analysis of the data concluded. Of the 1,396 Canadians surveyed, about 10 per cent found oil and gas firms to be credible on issues related to clean energy or the environment. Millennial respondents were particularly skeptical of the oil and gas sector. Only 9.3 per cent of them described the oil sands as "essential," as opposed to 18 per cent of the broader population.

"I don't think I was tremendously surprised at that result," Alberta Oil editor Max Fawcett told The Tyee. In his opinion social media has a lot to do with it. Digitally connected Millennials get much of their information about the world through sites like Facebook, Youtube and Twitter. And environmental groups have proven to be much more adept than oil and gas companies "at using social media and leveraging it to get their message out," he said. "That explains in part that generation gap."

But for the messages of environmental groups to have influence, Fawcett went on, young people have to be receptive to them. Polls in Canada and the U.S. consistently reveal that many Millennials distrust large corporations and governments. Young people are also more likely than Baby Boomers to worry about climate change -- and to support reductions of the fossil fuels that cause it. "The [oil and gas] industry has some work to do when it comes to bringing young people onside," Fawcett said.

Wide distrust

On no issue is that truer than pipelines. Only 21 per cent of the 18 to 34-year-olds surveyed in Alberta Oil's poll supported the Northern Gateway project, compared to 40 per cent of Boomers. This is consistent with several years of polling results from Insights West, which also found pipeline opposition to be highest among Millennials. "They just don't see all of the benefits that maybe someone who is middle-aged or over the age of 55 might see," said Insights West vice-president Mario Canseco.

The existence of a generation gap on attitudes towards oil and gas isn't limited to Canada. Earlier this year, a poll of Americans commissioned by CNN found just 47 per cent of 18 to 34 year old respondents supported the Keystone XL pipeline, as opposed to 67 per cent of people above 65. There's evidence such a gap exists in Alberta as well. Insights West polling from 2013 suggested that Boomers there were two times more likely to "strongly support" Northern Gateway than Millennials.

Blame for this gap shouldn't only be attributed to the oil and gas sector. Perhaps the biggest booster of pipelines in Canada is the federal government, which has declared them to be of "nation-building" importance. The problem is that many young people don't trust Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Or at least that's what a Forum poll from 2014 suggested. About 32 per cent of young respondents had "no trust at all" in the Prime Minister's Office, while 13 per cent of respondents above 65 felt the same.

By opposing new oilsands pipelines, Millennials in Canada are expressing their dislike of the current federal government. "There's no question that has a lot to do with it," Canseco said. But they're also expressing their distrust of the oil and gas sector -- and in particular its ability to clean up after an oil spill. "This is one of the major difficulties that companies like Kinder Morgan or Enbridge are facing," he said. "[Millennials] are not necessarily believing what the companies are saying."

Outdated sector

All this may explain why fewer than one in five oil and gas professionals in Canada are below the age of 35. "Bearded, environmentally-conscious men in their 20s no longer consider 'roughneck' to be a viable summer job, let alone a gateway into a petroleum engineering career," Vancouver-based business reporter Andrew Topf wrote last June on Oilprice. "Truth is, most would rather swill coffee at Starbucks than work in an industry many in their generation blames for ruining the planet."

Fearon from Hays Canada thinks the notion that all young people hold negative attitudes towards fossil fuels has become a bit overstated. "I don't necessarily believe that oil and gas has a dirty reputation," he said. But he conceded that such environmental disasters as BP's Deepwater Horizon spill -- and the negative media coverage accompanying them -- have caused serious damage to the sector's image. "[Young] people do pick up on it," he said. "You hear more bad than you do good."

To him the more serious problem is that many young people simply see a career in oil and gas as outdated. This is a generation of "digital natives," after all, the first in history to come of age immersed in online technologies, rather than having to adapt to them. Such Millennials can have "amazing careers and great salaries" working for tech firms like Apple and Google, Fearon said. "That's where a large percentage of the entry level people that were previously going into oil and gas [are heading]."

Hiring new workers is not exactly the top priority for oil and gas companies right now. As much as 40,000 people worldwide have been laid off since oil prices began plunging last fall. But Fearon thinks the sector -- especially in Canada -- needs to pay closer attention to the demographic shortfall looming over its future. "In 15 years, something like 37 per cent of the industry is going to retire," he said. "And there simply isn't the volume of [young] people coming in behind to replace them."  [Tyee]

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