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Labor Retention and Attraction

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Finding Quality Workers to Fill the Ranks of the Pipeline Industry

By Brian Rohwer and Kevin Waschuk

Brian Rohwer

Brian Rohwer

A very hot topic dominating industry conversation is the need to attract new, quality people to the pipeline construction industry. Recognizing that the innovators that helped shape the present industry and those in the current talent pool are diminishing through natural attrition, our available workforce is lessening more quickly than our ability to replenish it. Add in the burgeoning industry, and many of us are finding demand for competent, committed people is simply not keeping up.

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With competition and demand for this workforce, our industry needs to take a very serious look at how to attract and retain new talent. If we neglect to do so, it’s obvious our industry will suffer.

Groups within our industry — such as the Pipe Line Contractors Association of Canada (PLCAC) and its four craft unions — have begun to address recruitment challenges by implementing their new “Pipeline Workforce Attraction Project”. While this initiative’s focus is centered on attracting the young worker, it’s encouraging to note that it has begun to attract people of all ages. Supporting their efforts, government agencies have also garnered support through various employment and immigration incentive programs. But while we are making recruitment inroads, we’re still undermanned for the erosion levels we are experiencing.

Kevin Waschuk

Kevin Waschuk

Organizations outside of our industry have been promoting their markets through career fairs with good results, so we’re moved to examine whether the construction industry is doing enough of the same. In the past, we had an abundance of people waiting out in the yard, able to jump into one of the crew-cabs and go to work. And while this may traditionally have been the “go-to” method, in today’s world it’s unlikely to be successful. Even if there were an abundance of people willing to jump up and go, are the individuals attracted by this method the best suited for the work? Given modern technology, there are probably more savvy ways to attract personnel. We invest significant resources and training into our people, having the right hiring practices in the first place will move us exponentially toward our goal — innovative, resilient, long-term workers.

Some of the efforts made recently have not been as successful as hoped. Gaining traction has been slow, in part because the biggest shortage of workforce is still on the horizon, and as an industry we appear to still be in reactive rather than proactive mode. The successes have also been tempered with the less-progressive attitude there isn’t a guarantee that those investments will pay off. And while that’s true, investment into our workforce has never been guaranteed and we have more to lose today because often there’s no one there to fill the vacated position.

While training is one component key to both attraction and retention, incentives are another item for discussion. Supervisors — as well as other sectors of our industry such as welders, for example — are often given bonuses based on areas like production and quality. And while bonus structures may ensure that supervisors who produce results are rewarded, they’re often not very effective in maintaining people during boom-and-bust cycles.

Our industry must also keep in mind that not everyone will be attracted to our industry regardless of the wage offered, based on quality of life. Time away from home and family can act as a serious deterrent — perhaps not to the youngest new worker, but for men and women in the 25 to 40 year range, family life, community and putting down roots is vitally important. It would be pointless to examine worker attraction and retention without addressing quality of life issues that affect worker performance on the job and their ability to remain in the industry for any extended period of time. There have been successful “resource pool” programs in our industry. A close examination of how companies have been able to balance adequate staffing with excellent production and on-time schedules — along with quality of life issues — bear serious examination and replication.

To recognize the importance of labor attraction and retention in the pipeline industry is to write a prescription for success in the near and far future. In a way, we’re keeping with tradition by innovating new and better ways. The old methods of attraction and retention need modernization to be able to sustain a mobile and competent workforce.
Increased initiatives to recruit and retain the new worker have started but must receive more participation. More training, more promotion — leveraging techniques used in other industry sectors — and industry wide recognition of the flexibility needed in order to offer our sons and daughters the opportunity to engage in satisfying, lucrative work that also allows them a work/life balance.

So, a call to action: We’re calling for labor groups, owner companies, and government agencies to combine efforts in this investment. Our predecessors did it, and so can we.

Brian Rohwer is assistant construction manager at Enbridge Inc., and Kevin Waschuk is vice president of Waschuk Pipe Line Construction Ltd. Both are members of the North American Oil & Gas Pipelines editorial advisory board.

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