CALGARY – Mornings for recent chemical engineering graduate Stephen Situ consist of a bowl of cereal and a search through job boards before he starts driving for Uber Technologies Inc. at lunch.
Situ, like many in his under-25 age bracket, hasn’t found regular, full-time employment since graduating from the University of Calgary two years ago, except for a few months doing door-to-door internet sales for Telus Corp. and some construction labour in various parts of northern Alberta.
“I lost hope, but I started to see the bigger picture. This is life and sometimes it doesn’t work out,” said the 24-year-old, who estimates he has sent out more than 1,000 resumés. He said he’s also had a difficult time finding jobs in other sectors as well.
Indeed, young Albertan men are the only demographic whose employment numbers have continued to fall — and sharply at that — while employment levels for older men and women of all ages have almost recovered to pre-recession levels.
Put simply, Situ and other young men have not participated in Alberta’s economic recovery.
Statistics Canada data show 67 per cent of males between 15 and 24 were employed in the fall of 2014 when Alberta’s brutal, years-long recession began. Today, 55 per cent of them are employed, a 12-percentage-point decline even though real GDP grew 4.5 per cent in 2017.
Similarly, Alberta’s unemployment rate for males aged 15 to 24 was 14.6 per cent in March, which starkly contrasts with the province’s overall unemployment rate, which fell to a three-year-low of 6.3 per cent.
It’s not for lack of trying. Situ rattles off a long list when asked what he’s done to improve his job prospects: He’s been to career coaches and placement agencies, reworked his resumé, and widened his search to include all of Western Canada.
“I have a network, but it’s mostly unemployed people,” Situ said. “I have friends that went to graduate school and they’re still unemployed.”
In 2014, the U of C’s post-graduation employment rate for chemical engineers was 87 per cent. That fell to 41 per cent in 2015 and rose slightly to 43 per cent the following year. Most other engineering disciplines had similar declines, other than software engineering.
University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe estimated that overall employment in the province is still 40,000 jobs below pre-recession levels. He said the drop in employment for young men is equivalent to 30,000 jobs, which represents 75 per cent of the province’s yet-to-be-recovered jobs.
“It is so stark,” he said, calling the phenomenon a “male-dominated recession.”
Data specific to the province’s energy sector corroborate that the recession, which has resulted in a net loss of 29,800 oil and gas jobs in Alberta since 2014, hit younger workers particularly hard.
“We have a seen a decline in the younger workforce,” said Carol Howes, vice-president of Petroleum Labour Market Information, a division of Energy Safety Canada.
The organization’s data show that 24,674 people aged 15 to 24 worked in the Canadian oil and gas sector in 2006, accounting for 15 per cent of the total workforce. In 2016, the last year for which data is available, that had fallen to 12,497 people, which accounts for just seven per cent of the sector.
Howes said there are a few factors that have hurt younger workers. Most notably, many companies use a “last in, first out” approach to layoffs and they are also looking to retain experience as they cut jobs, which has eliminated positions for fresh graduates and stunted the careers for people just getting established.
Erik Nyman, an out-of-work journeyman electrician, was a general foreman in his mid-20s at a thermal oilsands project when he was laid off in December 2015.
Since then, he’s gone back to school at Mount Royal University in Calgary to upgrade his skills — obtaining a project management certification and doing courses toward a Blue Seal apprenticeship certification — worked with career coaches and placement agencies, and lost count of how many custom-tailored résumés he’s sent out.
“I’ve been hitting everything that I think I’m qualified for,” he said, but fears that he’s up against candidates with far more experience for the same entry-level positions.
Nyman said he is be willing to work for free in exchange for experience, but it’s a difficult subject to broach with an employer, especially when he’s still hoping — above all else — to get a full-time job and a paycheque.
“Depression has hit really hard,” he said, adding he’s now taking anti-depressants. He said he is trying to stay positive for himself and for his 13-month-old son, and his friends have been a source of support.
Both Situ and Nyman have relevant experience in their respective industries. For example, Situ worked for a year as an intern at Pembina Pipeline Corp. in the middle of his studies at U of C.
But Situ also said he’s competing with people in the middle of their careers for entry-level jobs. “I have a feeling that I’m going up against the most qualified candidates,” he said.
Recruitment firms confirm this dynamic. “The opportunities that are out there are more for experienced people,” said Jim Fearon, vice-president at Hays Specialized Recruitment, adding that young people are being forced to compete against more experienced candidates.
Fearon suggests more people should consider the mining industry, which began to rebound before the oil industry and is now hiring in large numbers. He said 85 to 95 per cent of the candidates he successfully helps find jobs go to the mining industry today, whereas prior to the oil price crash of 2014, “it would have been 80/20 the other way.”
But Alberta’s ongoing recovery has not yet produced the same number of jobs pre-recession.
“If you take 2014 or 2015 as the benchmark, then I think we’re a million miles away,” Fearon said.
The bleak outlook is causing Nyman to try to find work in the U.S. He said he’s been following headlines about oil-and-gas drilling activity ramping up in the places such as Texas while he applies for everything he can find in Canada.
“Other than rain and tornadoes, the weather is a little bit better,” he said of the U.S.
The outlook in the U.S. for energy work is a stark contrast to the situation in Alberta. The Northern Alberta Institute of Technology in Edmonton said the number of apprenticeships in ticketed trades — such as electricians, welders and heavy equipment technicians — has been falling.
The provincial government consults with industry on hiring outlooks to set apprenticeship numbers in Alberta. NAIT data shows a 47 per cent decline in apprenticeships for welders, resulting in 780 fewer positions. Similarly, for electricians, the next hardest hit trade, there were 18 per cent fewer apprenticeships, or 629 fewer positions.
In total, there were 3,086 fewer positions for new tradespeople at NAIT in 2017/2018 than the year before.
Petroleum Labour Market Information is currently studying what jobs the energy industry will need to fill in the future, as oil and gas companies try to run leaner operations and automate more of their functions. “The skills are going to change,” Howes said.
She said a coming wave of retirements at oil and gas companies could quickly reverse the current situation and create a labour shortage in the energy industry if young workers such as Situ, Nyman and others look elsewhere for employment — especially if they find it.
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