June 22, 2016 / 5:32 AM / a year ago

From engineer to sommelier: Calgary's laid-off oil workers try plan B

Alejandro Rodriguez is shown in this February 2016 photo taken in Houston, Texas. Courtesy of Alejandro Rodriguez/Handout via REUTERS

CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Alejandro Rodriguez wants to be a sommelier. His previous experience: 20 years as an oil reservoir engineer.

The 42-year-old needed to consider a career plan B after ARC Resources Ltd laid him off in January, adding to a growing number of people in the Canadian city of Calgary, Alberta who no longer have a place in its once-vibrant oil and gas industry.

Once lured by high pay and a multitude of opportunities, many job seekers in Calgary often have one mission these days: get out of the industry and never return.

“I see this as an opportunity to go for the passions you may have. If the downturn had not come, I would be continuing in the oil and gas industry,” said Rodriguez.

While the oil-rich province has a long boom and bust history, executive recruiters say pessimism is deeper than in past, with a growing number of white-collar workers looking for more stable careers.

In May, there were 25,000 fewer jobs in Calgary than there were a year earlier. Unemployment hit 8.1 percent, according to Statistics Canada data, higher than the 7.8 percent unemployment seen across Alberta, which has nearly doubled from 4.6 percent two years earlier.

Those departures suggest the industry could forever lose some of the talent and expertise it would need during a recovery.

“We have people coming through our programs saying ‘We are done. We do not want oil and gas jobs any more because it’s too unstable’,” said Jackie Rafter, founder of Higher Landings, a company that tries to help people move into different careers.

With U.S. crude around $48 a barrel, less than half the price it was two years ago, industry veterans call this slump the worst in a generation. Last month’s wildfire in the northern Alberta oil sands region landed a cruel extra blow.

The Canadian industry’s shift to produce more higher cost oil sands crude also makes a recovery less likely in a low-price environment. Research firm Wood Mackenzie recently estimated new thermal oil sands projects would need a U.S. crude price of around $60 to break even over time.

“DO I WANT TO GO THROUGH THIS AGAIN?”

That means there is plenty of demand for Rafter’s company, which held a recent workshop in a small, windowless conference room on the 52nd floor of Calgary’s Suncor Energy tower.

During the hour-long bring-your-own-lunch session, attendees are urged to focus on their values, beliefs and identity, as well as skills. She urges attendees to “unpeel the onion,” to figure out what kind of career would work for them.

But she warns those that think they can land another oil and gas job they are in for a shock since jobs that were once plentiful are now hard to come by.

“I feel sorry for those people who expect to get another job doing what they were doing before,” she said.

Wayne Beatty, 61, former vice president of corporate development at oil sands producer Southern Pacific Resource Corp, which went bust last year, is working toward provincial insurance and mutual fund licenses for a new career in financial services.

“The swings (in oil and gas) are much bigger than what other industries have seen and that creates all sorts of havoc,” he said.

Rafter said other Higher Landing clients include an engineer who has joined an accounting firm, a former oil company accountant turned nutritionist, and an oilfield services human resources manager who now works for a construction firm.

Bruce Proctor, managing partner of executive recruiter Summit Search Group in Calgary, said oil and gas professionals who have been laid off for six months or longer often then take a hard look at their options.

They ask, “‘do I want to go through this again once the industry comes back in another three to five years?'” he said.

CASUALTIES

There is another problem for Calgary’s job seekers. Some prospective employers worry oil veterans might return to their old, lucrative jobs if prices recover.

Summit Search Group’s Proctor said many of his clients worry that former energy sector workers use other jobs -- which often have lower status and pay -- as stopgaps for tough times, so they won’t consider oil and gas “casualties” for jobs now.

David Elsey, vice president at recruiter Executrade, said many companies have been burned in the past by hiring oil and gas workers, only to see them jump ship as soon as a new posting in the sector came available.

“It’s a nightmare from a recruitment perspective, you have such skilled people and can’t do anything with them,” he said.

Marian Hanna, who said she is in her 50s, lost her job as president of ION Geophysical Canada last July when the geoscience firm closed its Calgary office.

She recently completed a corporate directors designation program, similar to an executive MBA, run out of the city’s Haskayne School of Business, and is the current president of the Canadian Society of Exploration Geophysicists.

While the title is impressive, it does her little good these days because good job opportunities are so scarce, she said.

“If push comes to shove... I may be in retail or a Walmart greeter. I am not trying to be negative, but that’s the reality,” she said. “With 100,000 people out of work you can imagine how many apply when there’s an opportunity.”

Editing by Robert MacMillan and Alan Crosby

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